Conservationists say the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion project poses the greatest risk yet to a killer whale population on the edge of extinction
On one shore there are snow-capped mountains. On the other side loom towering skyscrapers. These churning waters off the coast of Vancouver are marked by a constant flow of ferries and containers ships but they are also home to 80 or so orcas.
Known as the southern resident killer whales the group has long had a fraught relationship with the urban sprawl they live alongside, leaving them on the knifes edge of extinction.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, dozens were captured and sold to aquariums and theme parks around the world. Those who remained were exposed to runoff chemicals used in local industry, making them some of the worlds most contaminated marine mammals.
But now the orcas of the Salish sea face what conservationists say is their biggest threat to date: an expansion proposal for a pipeline that would snake from Alberta to the Pacific coast.
Spearheaded by Texas-based energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, the C$6.8bn ($5bn) Trans Mountain Expansion project is designed to transport Albertas landlocked bitumen to international markets.
The proposal which still needs the approval of the federal government, led by Justin Trudeau would expand an existing pipeline to lay nearly 1,000km of new pipeline from Alberta to Vancouvers coastline. Oil tanker and barge traffic in the region would soar nearly sevenfold, to as many as 408 tankers a year.
Conservationists warn that the spike in tanker traffic would be disastrous for the resident orca whales a genetically unique population that is already classified as endangered in both Canada and the US.
The approval of the project is also the approval of the extinction of the population, said Ross Dixon of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. No one is disputing it. Nobody is saying thats not accurate. Its been accepted.
In May, Canadas energy regulator wrapped up two years of review into the Trans Mountain proposal, recommending that the federal government approve the project. The approval was conditional, subject to 157 conditions that include 49 environmental requirements. The regulator also noted the project is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whale.
Trudeaus cabinet has until 19 December to make its final decision.