The establishment and maintenance of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) protected areas is a primary means by which ecologically and culturally important regions are preserved. In addition, British Columbia’s (BC) Ministry of Environment has established areas of ecological importance that are not currently protected but contribute to the ecological integrity of this area. The Ministry defines an area of ecological importance as “a specific geographic location that represents a habitat capable of sustaining or contributing to the survival of specified species” (Government of BC, 2011). Currently, numerous protected areas and areas of ecological importance exist in marine and nearby terrestrial areas within the Northern Pacific of BC (IUCN, 2014). BC’s Pacific coast is one of the world’s most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems (Ministry of Environment, 2007). This conservation of rich coastal environment holds global significance, including 25% of the world’s remaining coastal temperate rainforest (Ministry of Environment, 2007; Green, 2007).
Many threats exist to these ecosystems such as physical alteration by human development, excessive harvesting, pollution, invasive species and global climate change (Ministry of Environment, 2007). External threats like oil exploration, extraction and transportation have serious impacts on areas that are designed to protect biodiversity and heritage (Miller, 2011). While internal threats can be monitored and controlled by existing authorities, external threats are out of reach despite their severe impacts on protected ecosystems (Cicin-Sain & Belfiore, 2005). To achieve the goal of maintaining ecosystem health it is important to consider the effects from all damaging sources, including oil spills. Exposure to oil can negatively affect feeding, growth, development and reproduction of all surrounding living organisms (Dalton & Jin, 2010). Wildlife are either directly impacted, such as seabird plumage saturation which reduces insulation and buoyancy, or indirectly impacted, such as reducing prey populations which disrupts local food webs (Dalton & Jin, 2010; Hlady & Burger, 1993). The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 proved to negatively impact surrounding coral communities through loss of coral tissue, excess mucous production and bleaching (White, 2012). After the spill, approximately 46% of coral colonies in the spill area showed evidence of damage to over half of each colony (White, 2012).
This study focuses on the potential marine risks originating from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. The Northern Gateway proposal consists of two pipelines (one for oil and the other for gas condensates) running from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, BC (National Energy Board, 2013). The pipeline is projected to move 525,000 barrels of unrefined crude oil from the Alberta tar sands each day to a new export terminal to be built in Kitimat. This terminal increases the amount of shipping that occurs throughout the Queen Charlotte Islands, an area that is subject to severe weather during winter months (EnergyBC, 2012; Van Hinte et al., 2007). There are currently three proposed tanker routes that will connect Kitimat to consumers overseas, such as those in American and Asian markets (Hinte et al., 2012). Although National Energy Board (2013) states that the risk of spill is low, evidence of past oil spills exists. The Queen of the North, a BC ferry, spilled a large amount of oil in this region in 2006 (Turner & Clifton, 2009). Evidence of previous oil spills by Enbridge shows that historically turbulent weather in the proposed region as well as increased marine traffic through the Douglas Channel leading to Kitimat increases the potential risk of future oil spills (EnergyBC, 2012).
For this analysis, ecologically important areas are defined as IUCN protected areas as well as British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment’s areas of ecological importance. All identified areas of ecological importance are located within the Northern Shelf biogeographic region of BC’s coast, which is the same spatial range of the projected shipping routes used to transport oil overseas. A risk analysis is utilized with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to address the uncertainty inherent in geographic and anthropogenic factors involved with the proposed shipping routes that influence risk of marine spills. Although Enbridge has assessed the geographic and traffic implications associated with the three proposed tanker routes this study expands the data by utilizing GIS tools to establish which of the three proposed tanker routes contains the highest risk of oil spills (Government of Canada, 2014). The results of this analysis are used to examine the vulnerability of nearby areas of ecological importance. Identifying areas of high tanker oil spill risk can provide stakeholders with information to potentially reconsider proposed terminal locations as well as to equip oil spill response organizations with locations of highly vulnerable areas of ecological importance. As the Northern Gateway project proposal takes a reactive stance on environmental impacts it is important to examine the risk and impacts of oil spillage on surrounding areas prior to project approval, utilizing the precautionary approach (National Energy Board, 2013).
Purpose of Research
This research aims to identify the route of highest oil spill risk of the associated Northern Gateway oil tanker routes and to determine the areas of ecological importance most vulnerable on each course by using Geographic Information Systems tools.