Misguided Canadian Pipeline Proposal Would More Than Double Oil Tanker Traffic Through the Gulf of Maine

This is the third in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The second blog in the series unpacks the long-term, big picture impacts for oil exploration in New England. 

TransCanada, of Keystone XL infamy, submitted a revised application recently for its Energy East proposal, a pipeline that would transport millions of gallons of dirty tar sands oil to New Brunswick for refining. That refined petroleum product would then be shipped through the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, and on to locations around the world.

The proposal significantly increases the risk of an oil spill in the Gulf of Maine, which would cause calamitous and lasting damage to its fragile ecosystems.

TransCanada proposes to move this toxic brew more than a thousand miles through converted pipelines that had once been used to transport natural gas ­– and then to store it at a facility in Saint John that will increase its storage capacity to 13.2 million barrels (at 42 gallons to the barrel, that is more than half a billion gallons of oil)!

To export such a high volume, the number of oil super tankers plying the waters of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would more than double – from 115 to more than 280 per year.

A New Caliber of Disaster Potential

Tar sands oil is the most destructive, carbon intensive of all liquid fuels, and keeping tar sands in the ground is critical if we are serious about meeting the goals agreed upon at the climate talks in Paris last December.

When spilled, tar sands oil is also far more dangerous to habitat and animals due to its chemical makeup and viscosity. The aftermath of an Exxon Valdez-like spill from a super tanker carrying tar sands oil would be especially catastrophic.

Bitumen – the substance that results from mixing gritty tar sands oil with natural gas components to make it easier to transport – sinks quickly upon hitting the water. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which advises the U.S. Congress, no one is prepared to appropriately respond to a tar sands oil spill in water. Not first responders, not governments, not even the industry itself has the knowledge or technology to remedy a tar sands oil spill in the ocean.

This makes the risk to the critically important and ecologically sensitive areas in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine simply unacceptable. Let’s remember that the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than almost any other bay, sea or ocean in the world, making it especially vulnerable.

The currents and circulation patterns in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would sweep any oil escaping a tanker into the Canadian Maritimes and coastal Maine waters, and would certainly disrupt the one remaining consistently productive fishing area on Georges Bank as well. A spill similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster could stretch from Canadian waters to Cape Cod.

Canada’s insistence on investing in such a finite, harmful resource as tar sands oil is shortsighted and incredibly risky. Adding such an unnecessary man-made threat to our ocean is a risk we New Englanders simply can’t afford.

Update: On Jan. 21, 2016, the Montreal Metropolitan Community – representing 3.9 million Canadians – said it will not support the Energy East proposal, delivering the largest blow to the project and putting pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reject it.

Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

This is the second in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.    

Oil exploration. Pipelines. Tar sands. Oil tankers. Spills. These should be words of our past, not our future.

 

Yet at a time when climate change is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing modern society, some recent developments involving these terms have me scratching my head. First, our Canadian neighbors just approved new oil exploration leases to the south of Nova Scotia that come disturbingly close to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, areas known to be sensitive to environmental shocks.

And now, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal, submitted last week, would more than double the number of oil tankers carrying tar sands oil – from 115 to more than 280 each year – through the Bay of Fundy and down New England’s coast.

Double the tankers means double the risk for a catastrophic accident or oil spill. Just one major spill could devastate our most precious underwater wild places, while destroying the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

Climate change compels us to move away from fossil fuels, yet oil companies press on searching every nook and cranny of the planet to find it, not minding the disturbances and threats they’re posing to vulnerable ecosystems, endangered species, and local economies.

Drilling Deja-vu

This isn’t the first time oil or gas exploration has threatened the Gulf of Maine. Since the 1970s, energy companies have clamored for approval to drill for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coastline, including the U.S.-controlled portion of Georges Bank and along the coast of Canada.

In 1978, Conservation Law Foundation partnered with fishermen and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to block oil exploration on Georges Bank – winning the first successful injunction against offshore drilling in the United States. CLF argued that oil leasing was inconsistent with the then two-year-old federal fisheries law (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act) because the risks were potentially catastrophic to the marine wildlife the region’s fishermen depend on to make a living.

Ultimately, in the early 1980s, an exploratory dig was approved but turned up no oil in Georges Bank. Led by New England’s Congressional delegation, CLF persuaded Congress to pass a funding moratorium on all future Georges Bank drilling. Canadian fishermen and activists soon followed suit, citing the U.S.’s example to fight off similar drilling efforts on their side of Georges Bank. A Canadian drilling moratorium on Georges Bank was established in 1988, and now extends to 2022.

In 2008, the U.S. moratorium was lifted and exploration off our shores is now only blocked by soft, interim no-drill agreements. Meanwhile, with our northern neighbor more aggressively pursuing offshore oil and gas, Canadian leases in the North Atlantic Ocean have been steadily marching south, getting closer and closer to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Too Close for Comfort

To make matters worse, Canada has permitted the oil companies drilling nearby – such as the one at Shelburne Basin, just 75 miles east of Georges Bank – to forego keeping emergency equipment close at hand. This allows them almost two weeks to cap an oil well blowout should an accident occur, effectively sanctioning the catastrophic damage a blowout would cause. In comparison, in U.S. waters surrounding Alaska, oil companies have a maximum of 24 hours to put emergency caps on drilling blow-outs.

The risk to New England from the explorations in Shelburne Basin and other areas east of Georges Bank? Toxins could get caught up in the pronounced southwest-flowing Maine Coastal Current that’s instrumental in lobster larvae distribution throughout coastal Maine – dealing a potentially devastating blow to Maine’s most important fishery.

And the dispersants used in the cleanup of a spill can be even more harmful to sea life than the oil itself. Toxic pollutants from the Canadian sites east of Georges Bank could easily get picked up by the upwelling currents that account for the legendary productivity of the Georges Bank system – transforming those upwelling currents from being life-giving to life-taking.

The increased risks in the U.S. from Canadian exploratory drilling may seem remote but they are, nonetheless, real and potentially catastrophic. Industry claims of safety are belied by real, recent disasters like the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

These encroaching Canadian leases also create a troubling precedent. Once oil or gas drilling begins in this area of the North Atlantic – even if it is technically across the border – the arguments to maintain “no-drill” agreements in the U.S. are weakened. And although there is little industry interest in Georges Bank for oil, the industrial appetite for developing natural gas wells so close to the U.S. northeast is likely growing – and who knows what that future might hold.

The Big Picture for New England

The threat from offshore oil development isn’t just to marine wildlife, but also to our New England way of life: fishing, surfing, whale watching, beach combing (and the millions of tourist dollars that go along with them) – so much of our economy depends on a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and abundant marine wildlife.

From start to finish – preliminary seismic testing, drilling, oil spills, chemicals used in cleanup, and transport – the marine oil and gas exploration and drilling process is risky, harmful, and unnecessary. Further environmental review will be required in Canada before production drilling could start. The U.S. State Department needs to protest any further activities as forcefully as possible.

New England is already at risk from climate change, above and below the water. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities. Rapidly warming waters cause species to move away in search of colder temperatures, potentially eliminating fisheries that have sustained regional economies for generations. Increasing ocean acidity jeopardizes the two most significant fisheries in New England: lobsters and sea scallops.

The last thing we need are more man-made threats to our ocean and all that it represents for us as New Englanders.

 

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

In New England, witnessing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is an awe-inspiring experience reminding us of the complex and magnificent undersea metropolis that’s just below the surface. Whales ­– humpback, minke, North Atlantic right whales, and more – are iconic New England marine life, bringing people in droves each year to experience the sight of these majestic creatures, and contributing significantly to New England’s coastal economies.

Unfortunately, recent developments by our neighbors to the north put whales and the region’s economy at risk. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s government granted final approval to a Norwegian energy company, Statoil, to begin offshore oil exploration just east of Georges Bank, off the coast of the province’s Scotian Shelf. This exploratory lease area is in addition to two others, owned by Shell Canada and BP Canada, which have permission to begin the process of testing for oil.

While Canada has a moratorium on oil exploration in Georges Bank, similar to our own, the country has otherwise aggressively pursued offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic. These new leases near Georges Bank are too close for comfort.

The Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank especially, is an ecologically sensitive and biologically-rich area, and new oil exploration poses significant and immediate threats to the region’s ecosystems, particularly to marine mammals such as the North Atlantic right whale.

Seismic testing

When drilling occurs, the risks are massive – the worst of which is an oil spill. But even before any drilling occurs, irreversible damage can occur. The first step a company takes in testing for oil is to conduct seismic testing, a process that uses air gun blasts to scan areas for mineral deposits. These blasts must be loud enough to reach the ocean floor, where sensors record and send the data back up to the surface.

During seismic testing, companies run these blasts repeatedly, often 10 seconds apart, 24 hours a day, for many days in a row.

If you can imagine being exposed again and again to an extremely loud, unknown noise for weeks at a time, I think you can understand why this is a problem. As complex creatures who rely on sound waves to communicate, whales are especially at risk. The noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, causing confusion that could lead to habitat abandonment, putting them at risk for displacement. The constant noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruptions to normal feeding and mating habits, and chronic health problems from increased stress levels – all of which can have a major impact on the species’ ability to rebound.

All marine life is important to healthy ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine, but the endangered North Atlantic right whale would be the most vulnerable to seismic testing. Only around 500 whales are alive today, putting them at dire risk of extinction. Threatening even one of these whales threatens the entire species at a time when every whale counts.

A Safe Haven

With climate change and overfishing already putting pressure on our ocean habitats, providing a safe haven for North Atlantic right whales – and all of the marine creatures that depend on a healthy ocean – is more important than ever before.

Conservation Law Foundation has long fought to protect our ocean wildlife – including taking fisheries managers to task for failing to protected some of New England’s most iconic groundfish species from near extinction. Last year, we worked to ensure protections for North Atlantic right whales when Deepwater Wind sought to create the first offshore wind farm in the Rhode Island Sound. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, we successfully came to an agreement with the company to limit pre-construction activities for the turbines during seasons when right whales migrate through the area.

Risks posed from oil exploration are real and happening now, we cannot sit passively by while oil interests threaten our coastal economies and endangered species. Unfortunately, the United States cannot stop Canadian oil exploration in nearby waters. But we can send a strong signal to our northern neighbor by permanently protecting critical ocean areas that can serve as a safe haven for threatened species.

Designating the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument would send a strong message that these areas are important national and international interests worth protecting.

Bear Seamount: Why Does a Deep Sea Extinct Volcano Need Protection?

Millions of years ago, the Earth’s plates were very, very slowly pushing the Great Meteor hot spot on a southeastern path from Hudson Bay toward the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, hot plumes of magma welled up under the Earth’s crust, forming chains of volcanoes marking the hot spot’s track. Between 124 and 100 million years ago, New Hampshire pushed over the hot spot, and the White Mountains were formed. Then, about 100 to 83 million years ago, the New England Seamount Chain was formed in the Atlantic Ocean. Bear Seamount was the first underwater volcano to arise in the chain.

BearSeamountLooking northeast towards Bear Seamount with Physalia Seamount in the background. Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

 

A Bear of a Seamount

The New England Seamount Chain volcanoes have not been active since their formation. They exist as huge underwater mountains that host a spectacular variety of marine organisms. The chain encompasses more than 30 major volcanic peaks and stretches nearly to Bermuda!

Bear Seamount is the northwestern most seamount in the chain, lying just south of Georges Bank. It rises up from the depths of the continental floor between 6,500 to 10,000 feet deep and summits to a flat peak 3,600 feet below the ocean surface. Its exterior is a combination of thick sediment, volcanic outcroppings, and rocks deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago.

Two major ocean currents run perpendicular to Bear Seamount: the Gulf Stream and the Deep Western Boundary currents. These currents dramatically influence water temperature, creating an environment that is unique to the Northwestern Atlantic.

Creatures from the Deep

For a long time, scientists did not know which species called Bear Seamount home, but recent research cruises have unveiled an underwater world full of unique marine life – Bear Seamount is truly a biodiversity hotspot.

The Gulf Stream and Deep Western Boundary currents produce favorable environmental conditions for an assortment of creatures that are not typically associated with the nearby continental slope. This includes organisms such as the Eastern Atlantic spiderfish, the cutthroat eel, and the Arctic rockfish. We had no idea that many of these organisms existed in the Western Atlantic before they were discovered at Bear!

CutthroatEel A cutthroat eel consumes a squid for dinner. Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

A wide array of corals, sponges, and mollusks populate the seamount. Many of these species support astounding mobile invertebrate populations, including squid, tubeworms, octopods, and crustaceans. The combination of coral habitat and ample prey at Bear Seamount provide ideal conditions for deep sea fish populations, such as the lancetfish.

Check out some of the crazy creatures found on the NOAA Pisces 2012 research cruise to Bear seamount – lancetfish, dragonfish, catsharks, sea spiders, blind lobsters, and more!

Threadfindragonfish

The undereye area of the threadfin dragonfish (Echiostoma barbatum) is bioluminescent, meaning it emits light. Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Bioluminescence and Vision on the Deep Seafloor 2015 expedition.

Human Pressures

Bear Seamount is an ecologically critical undersea region. Its unique conditions foster a diverse community of species not typically found in the region, and its coral populations provide shelter and spawning grounds for a wide array of organisms. How could we possibly threaten this rich ecosystem?

The danger lies in the potential for fishery development. Since 1997, some fishermen have had their eye on the region; many are convinced the region has potential for orange roughy and roundnose grenadier fisheries. But this could spell disaster for the delicate deepwater system.

Sessile organisms, such as corals and sponges, are extremely vulnerable to destruction from trawlers; they are frequently either removed from the ecosystem altogether or severely damaged from trawling gear sweeps. Many coral species on Bear Seamount, such as Lophelia pertusa, are critical components of the reef, but are slow-growing and therefore take thousands of years to recover from disturbance. Slow-maturing fish species found on Bear Seamount, such as the roundnose grenadier, are susceptible to overfishing because of the length of time it takes for stocks to replenish.

Lophelia

Lophelia Pertusa. Courtesy of NOAA.

Potential offshore oil and gas development could also severely damage this delicate ecosystem. Even exploratory operations, such as seismic testing, put marine mammals and fish at risk. Ultimately, at a time when climate change and ocean acidification are stressing deep sea coral communities, it is important that we do all we can to prevent further destruction.

Bear Seamount and the whole New England Seamount Chain are deep sea treasures that need our protection.

Georges Bank on the Habitat Chopping Block

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee continues to show complete disregard for habitat protection. Up for consideration at the Committee’s Monday meeting was an industry-introduced proposal to open critical areas of Georges Bank as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The proposal was originally designed to allow access to the Northern edge of Georges Bank for scalloping.

The discussion that played out reinforced the notion that the management body tasked with protecting essential fish habitat in New England is driven instead by short-term industry interests and willing to sacrifice important ecological areas in order to accommodate fishing interests.

The Habitat Committee ultimately voted to the full Council as its preferred alternative for the Georges Bank area a revised and further weakened version of the industry’s proposal, which establishes two habitat closures along the southern edge (a western and eastern area) closed to mobile-bottom tending gear and a “mortality closure” over the scallop and vulnerable habitat rich northern edge. A mortality closure can be opened at the discretion of the Council and NMFS when the population of fish that it was intended to protect no longer need such catch protections

When a commenter pointed out to the Committee that the “mortality closure” comprised 80% gravel and cobble bottom habitat – some of the most vulnerable, high quality essential fish habitat according to NEFMC’s own data – the Committee moved quickly to conjure up a new name for the area. Sadly, no wordsmithing could disguise the meaning of intent of the Committee to ensure that damaging scallop dredges would gain access to this most vulnerable of habitats. In a move that again directly contradicted the Council’s own science, the Committee leapt to relocate the western habitat protected area from a region comprised mostly of cobble and gravel bottom to one dominated by sand. The Council has repeatedly taken the position in this years-long process that their science indicates that sandy bottom on Georges Bank has among the lowest values as essential fish habitat.

With this as preferred alternative going into the June full Council meeting, Georges Bank faces a drastic reduction in overall protected habitat area, rolling back decades of habitat recovery in some of the areas now proposed to be wide open to all fishing gears. Disregarding its own science accumulated over the innumerable years this amendment has been underway, the Council seems positioned to cash in its habitat protected areas in favor of short term economic gain, while risking long term viability of New England’s fishing future.

The Council meets in the third week of June to finalize its votes on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. After the June vote, the Council will submit its proposed amendment to NOAA for final approval or disapproval. At this point, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in with the agency about how the Omnibus Habitat Amendment moves ocean habitat protections backwards and endangers the future of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

Image: A sea scallop and tunicate colonies encrusting pebble gravel habitat on Northern Georges Bank. Photo by USGS.