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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - TransCanada Corp, Canada's No.2 pipeline operator, is pausing work on a proposed oil export terminal in Quebec, after a federal committee recommended that Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river be listed as an 'endangered' species.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) said on Monday that the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga faces increased environmental threats and that without protection, the population was at risk of extinction.
"This news yesterday that there's a recommendation to place those belugas on the endangered species list, for us, was a signal that we needed to hit the pause button," said TransCanada spokesman Tim Duboyce.
Duboyce added that the Calgary-based company will review its options for the Cacouna, Quebec terminal once it has analyzed the report and spoken with government and local communities.
Under Canadian law, animals listed as 'endangered' are subject to immediate protections, including making it illegal to hunt or harm them, or to destroy their critical habitat.
The Cacouna terminal is one of two marine export facilities planned as part of TransCanada's C$12 billion ($10.5 billion) Energy East pipeline, which would carry 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil to refineries and ports in Eastern Canada.
About 700 kilometers (434 miles) of the line's 4,600-km route would run through Quebec, which last month imposed seven conditions that it said must be met before Energy East will be allowed to proceed.
The Cacouna terminal would allow oil to be shipped to international markets. TransCanada also plans to build a deep water terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick, which would allow oil to be loaded on supertankers to be shipped to far flung markets like India.
Energy East is opposed by environmental activists, who worry about the risk of oil spills and the expansion of carbon-intensive output from the Alberta oil sands, along with the impact that shipping would have on the whales.
The Beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence river was depleted by hunting through 1979, and now faces new risks from industrial development, pollution and toxic algae, according to the COSEWIC report.
The committee's recommendation that the Belugas be listed as 'endangered' will now be reviewed by Canada's Minister of the Environment. They are currently listed as threatened.
(1 US dollar = 1.1404 Canadian dollar)
Reporting by Julie Gordon; Editing by Bernard Orr