BC Ferries was pulled into the fight over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project on Friday, as the National Energy Board (NEB) issued a decision saying that the project should move ahead.
In its decision, the NEB recommended that the ferry fleet take major steps to slow down and minimize underwater noise in order to protect marine life off the B.C. coast, including the southern resident killer whale population.
The recommendation was one of 16 included in the new decision, which also recommended similar changes for marine shipping vessels and whale watching boats.
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BC Ferries said it is already working on reducing underwater noise, but the NEB called for those plans to be accelerated.
“Every vessel we build is quieter than the last, so we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to reduce underwater noise from our ferries,” BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said.
Slowing down vessels and making them quieter aren’t necessarily connected, she added.
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“Some of our vessels like a “Spirit”-class vessel, for example, have what we call controllable pitch propellers, and when you slow down a vessel with [those propellers], they actually create more noise,” Marshall said.
Last summer, the company released a report saying it has reduced underwater noise on its vessels through improvements in hull design and by using different types of propellers.
“This is going to be a long process,” the report said. “We build our ships to operate for decades, more than 50 years in some cases. New, quieter ships will therefore arrive gradually in the Salish Sea.”
Replacements for BC Ferries’ older C-Class vessels will be built between 2022 and 2030, the report said.
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BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said the recommendation could lead the province to invest in new technology for the ferry fleet to address noise and speed.
“One of the things I would like to see us exploring is ferries that have different forms of combustion or actually electric ferries as we more forward,” he said.
Marshall said two vessels that are currently being built will be powered by electric-hybrid technology.
She was also noted that only a few ferry routes actually cross through the shipping routes to which the NEB’s recommendations are aimed, but added that BC Ferries is still taking the recommendation seriously and that it will work with the board and the province to find solutions.
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Critics of the decision — and its recommendations — noted that the NEB’s calls to slow down ferries and other vessels is meant to offset the projected seven-fold increase in tanker traffic that the pipeline expansion is expected to generate off the B.C. coast if it’s realized.
The tankers will all carry diluted bitumen from the coast to offshore markets, which environmental lawyers argue would pose more risk to the orca population than underwater noise and vessel speed.
“They know and they’ve already said and everyone has admitted that this project amounts to a death sentence to the southern resident orcas,” Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law said. “But what the board has said is that this is justified under the circumstances because of what they are arguing is the economic benefits.”
Increasing ferry service
The recommendation came as the province also announced Friday it would increase sailings on 10 ferry routes serving coastal communities, including Bowen Island, Texada Island, Gabriola Island, Quadra Island, Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.
The routes are the same ones that the previous Liberal government cut in 2014. The NDP said the restored sailings would bring back 2,700 round-trip sailings.
“For years, people living in coastal communities saw ferry fares increase and services cut,” Minister of Transportation Claire Trevena said in a statement.
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“Quality, affordable ferry services are a necessity, not a luxury,” she continued. “That’s why we’ve turned the ship around – first by rolling back ferry fares on small coastal routes and now by reversing cuts to services that were making it difficult for people to get around.”
Those routes are expected to start returning as early as the spring, with more services set to be restored over the next year, the province said.
A full list of restored routes can be found here.
With files from Catherine Urquhart and the Canadian Press