Environmental group: New clean energy project could kill off endangered killer whales

Dipka Bhambhani | Contributor

A new clean energy project could wipe out the killer whales off the coast of Washington State, according to an environmental group dedicated to protecting the mammals.

Washington State has decided to build a tidal energy pilot project in Admiralty Inlet in the waters of Puget Sound. It’s a plan that has pitted clean energy advocates against their animal-loving allies in the environmental movement.

While at least a dozen groups have urged federal regulators to thwart the state’s plans, some of the most vocal opponents are environmentalists who say the clean energy project threatens the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population.

The Orca Conservancy — the national nonprofit created to protect the killer whale and its habitat — has urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) not to grant a license to the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) in Washington State for its tidal pilot project.

The group fears that the 386 metric ton turbines and their accompanying noise would seriously harm the orca population which transits and forages in Admiralty Inlet, where the project would be located.

“It is clear from the best available science that there just aren’t a lot of data yet on tidal turbines and the effects they have on wildlife. At this stage, the science we do have points to potential and serious problems if even a single member of the [Southern Resident Killer Whales] SRKW community is harmed or injured,” the Orca Conservancy said.

Craig Collar, assistant general manager for the PUD said his team considered a number of variables when selecting the site, including, “proximity to shore, so shoreline observers can observe for things like orca[s].”

He said the PUD would never move forward if the project would harm the endangered orcas. He said the PUD is part of the community in the northwest that wants to protect the whale, its habitat and the surrounding ecosystem.

“There is no credible mechanism for this [pilot] project to harm an orca,” Collar told The Daily Caller.

Yet the Orca Conservancy, in two separate letters to the FERC — one on February 25 and another with other environmental groups on May 23 — said, “a new area must be considered.”

When asked about the opposition, Collar said the Orca Conservancy is coming into this process “very very very late,” and two Department of Energy national laboratories have already determined the whales are safe.  If approved, the Energy Department would provide a $10 million grant for half of the tidal project’s $20 million cost.

The Pacific Northwest National Lab and the Sandia National Lab conducted a study to assuage concerns from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries (NOAA Fisheries) after it “expressed concerns that the turbines may cause a risk for the highly endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population if a whale is struck by an operating turbine.”

Collar said the study showed the whales would not be harmed.  The tidal turbine “spins so slowly,” that if an animal engaged with it, “the rotor would push their body out of the way.”

Shari Tarantino, President of the Board of Directors for the Orca Conservancy isn’t satisfied.

She told the FERC in that February 25 letter that the group “stands firmly in direct opposition of the proposed application for a 10-year pilot license” for the project.

Citing numerous findings about the perils of tidal energy development in sensitive marine environments, Tarantino told the FERC:

“It is important when considering a project of this magnitude to distinguish between environmental effects AND environmental impacts. Environmental effects are the broad range of potential measurable interactions between tidal energy devices and the marine environment. Environmental impacts are effects that, with high certainty, rise to the level of deleterious ecological significance.”

The Orca Conservancy — joined by OrcaLab, Naked Whale Research, Fins and Fluke, and Voice of the Orcas — told FERC that the tidal turbines are smack in the middle of the migration and foraging areas of several “pods” of the whales.

The groups warned of turbine collisions resulting in “bruised, discolored, or lacerated animals.” Impacts from noise and vibration are also a concern, the groups wrote.

The PUD began researching sites in 2007 where it could install two large hydroelectric turbines on the seabed — each 386 metric tons and 10 meters in height, sitting on a triangular foundation, which would generate small amounts of power for up to a decade for some Whidbey Island residents.  According to FERC documents, the energy cost for the project is almost 300 times the cost of traditional energy sources.

The turbines aren’t new; they are designed and built by an Irish company, Open Hydro, whose turbines have already proved problematic, according to the Canadian government. Canada’s Recharge News has published several stories since the Open Hydro turbine failed in a similar tidal pilot in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

The Snohomish project has also generated vehement opposition from groups other than the Orca Conservancy.

Pacific Crossing, the owner of the nearby transpacific telecommunications cable, PC-1, researched and proposed alternative sites near the tidal pilot after it learned Snohomish planned to install its turbines less than 500 meters from its critical fiber optic voice and data cable.

“In the case of Admiralty Inlet, we’re not asking the PUD not to build their project, or not to build its project in Admiralty Inlet,” Kurt Johnson, Pacific Crossing’s chief financial officer said, “we’re just asking that they put it at a safe distance from our cable.  By any measure, the proposed separation of 170 meters and 230 meters is simply too close,” he said.

Collar said he considered Pacific Crossing’s alternative sites, but they weren’t feasible.

 “The way the project is currently designed, it simply doesn’t pose any risk to Pacific Crossing’s cables; that’s the most important thing,” Collar said.

The pilot has also faced opposition from the North American Submarine Cable Association — a non-profit organization representing the telecommunications and cable industry — and Native American interests.

Native American tribes in the state argue the environment would be harmed, and the project would undermine treaty fishing rights, interfering with the tribes’ active longline fishing in the area.

“These customary fishing areas are federally adjudicated rights which cannot be taken by federal action without congressional approval and compensation,” the Tulalip Tribe said in comments to the FERC.

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