Canada aims to ease whale protection as pipeline decision looms

Tue Apr 22, 2014 7:55pm EDT
 
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By Julie Gordon

VANCOUVER, April 22 (Reuters) - Canada has recommended taking humpback whales off the "threatened" species list, two months before the government is due to decide whether to approve a proposed pipeline that would lead to half a million barrels of oil being shipped through their Pacific marine habitat every year.

The Department of the Environment released a document over the Easter holiday that recommends the North Pacific humpback whales should now be labeled a "species of special concern."

The change of classification means the humpback's habitat would no longer be protected under Canada's Species at Risk Act, thereby removing some of the risk of legal battles with environmental groups that could scupper Enbridge Inc's controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project.

"It's a very cynical political move that is not based in science, designed solely to permit the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to be approved by removing the designation of critical habitat for the whales," said Karen Wristen, executive director of marine conservation group Living Oceans Society.

The recommendation stems from a 2011 study that found the whale population had increased since it was first listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act in 2005. It is now in the hands of the Governor in Council, which can amend the legislation after a 30-day response period.

The government's document does not draw a connection between the Northern Gateway project and its recommendation on humpbacks.

Northern Gateway would carry crude from Alberta's oil sands to the northern British Columbia town of Kitimat for loading on tankers that would sail through the Douglas Channel, a breeding and feeding ground for humpback whales.

As a threatened species, the humpback's critical habitat was legally protected, leaving the door open for court challenges around the potential impact of development on those waterways.   Continued...