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Energy East Puts U.S. Coastal Ecosystems at Risk

Unsplash / Pixabay
Unsplash / Pixabay

Environmental review of TransCanada Corporation’s Energy East pipeline project will be incomplete if it fails to consider the risk its construction poses to ecosystems and endangered species along the East Coast of North America, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council asserts in a new report.

The NRDC characterizes the proposed Energy East line in its report, Tar Sands In the Atlantic Ocean: TransCanada’s Proposed Energy East Pipeline, as the company’s fallback alternative to its denied Keystone XL pipeline that would have run south from the Alberta tar sands/oil sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The company’s Energy East application, it writes, “outlines a more than US$12-billion, 4,600-kilometre pipeline to carry 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil to eastern Canada,” for refining at the Irving Oil refinery at Saint John, N.B. or for export. Most of that, 900,000 bpd, would be diluted tar sands/oil sands bitumen, the rest light oil from fields in Saskatchewan and North Dakota.

Unlike the formal Canadian environmental assessment currently under way, however, the NRDC examined the rest of the crude’s delivery route after it leaves Canadian soil.

“The Energy East proposal,” it finds, “threatens vibrant and irreplaceable ocean and coastal areas all along the U.S. east coast—along with economies that depend on them and the animals that live in them. Almost 300 supertankers per year would form a high-risk, waterborne pipeline down the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, around the Florida Panhandle, and on to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

“Risks include ships running over marine mammals, injuring or killing them, a significant increase in underwater noise pollution, and an elevated risk of devastating oil spills.” Vulnerable ecosystems put at risk would extend from the Bay of Fundy, a last home for the Atlantic Right whale, to the Florida Keys, the NRDC asserts.

That risk is accentuated, the report notes, by the fact that most of the product loaded onto tankers and shipped down the U.S. Atlantic coast would not be conventional crude, but the same toxic blend of bitumen and volatile diluent that leaked for 17 hours into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 from another Canadian company’s pipeline.

“Spills of this type of oil have proved particularly damaging to water bodies,” the report notes. “In fact, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that current regulations and spill response techniques are incapable of managing the unique behaviour and higher risks of tar sands diluted bitumen spills in water.”

The group’s five recommendations to protect coastal ecosystems begin with a proposal for a moratorium on all diluted bitumen tanker traffic in U.S. and Canadian waters until gaps in the scientific understanding of the behaviour of diluted bitumen in sea water are resolved—an action that would effectively put off indefinitely the industry’s cherished goal of developing supply lines to offshore markets.

NRDC also urges that the much-criticized Canadian Environmental Assessment Act be modernized to mandate scrutiny of both upstream and downstream impacts of tar sands/oil sands-related projects, “especially the global climate and public health impacts, as well as marine impacts in Canadian and U.S. waters.”

Noting the narrowly domestic focus of Canada’s environmental assessment, NRDC suggests that ways be found to engage U.S. interests and agencies in assessing threats to key areas on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard that are “likely to be impacted by Energy East’s oil tanker traffic, including the Gulf of Maine, New York Harbor, Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Strait, and the Gulf Coast.” It urges the U.S. government to protect particularly significant features along the proposed route—such as New England’s Cashes Ledge area in the Gulf of Maine, and the so-called “cold-water coral canyons” off Cape Cod, further south—by granting them National Monument Status. (Disclosure: Mitchell Beer, a co-author of the NRDC report, is founder and senior curator of The Energy Mix.)