LNG Canada today short listed two companies, LNG BC Contractors, a partnership of TechnipFMC plc and KBR, Inc. and the partnership of JGC Corporation and Fluor Corporation on the short list to build the proposed LNG Canada facility in Kitimat.
LNG Canada said their commercial negotiations to commence immediately
LNG Canada news release:
Vancouver, British Columbia, February 2, 2018 – Following a year-long request for proposal (RFP) process, LNG Canada announced it has notified two of its four potential engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors that they have been shortlisted for the chance to build the company’s proposed LNG export facility in Kitimat, British Columbia.
LNG Canada intends to select the preferred EPC contractor sometime in 2018. Negotiations will begin immediately with the two EPC contractors to determine the most commercially competitive proposal.
LNG Canada identified the finalists as the partnership of TechnipFMC plc and KBR, Inc. (LNG BC Contractors), and the partnership of JGC Corporation and Fluor Corporation.
Following a decision to delay a final investment decision in 2016, LNG Canada used the delay period to issue an RFP to identify a preferred EPC contractor willing to build the proposed LNG Canada project on a lump sum basis. LNG Canada prequalified four EPC consortia based on several criteria, including prior experience in LNG design and modularization, track record of project completion, and experience with construction in Western Canada.
“This process is critical in LNG Canada’s pursuit of the level of competitiveness required to support a future final investment decision by our joint venture participants,” said Andy Calitz, CEO of LNG Canada. “A tremendous amount of time and effort has been invested by the four EPC consortia, as well as by LNG Canada’s internal review team, and I thank them all for their contributions to the RFP process thus far.”
LNG Canada’s proposal evaluation criteria included health and safety management, financial strength, technical design, execution plans, contract price and schedule. The proposers also committed to living up to LNG Canada’s values and the commitments it has made to local communities, First Nations, as well as the company’s high standards of social and environmental performance.
“While this is a significant milestone, work remains to be done to deliver a globally cost competitive project that is well positioned to take a final investment decision,” added Calitz. “We look forward to working closely with TechnipFMC plc and KBR, Inc. and JGC Corporation and Fluor Corporation to advance our project in British Columbia that will benefit the regional, provincial and national economy.”
District of Kitimat Council voted Monday five to two to create a “working group” of “concerned citizens and community groups” to consider the future of riverbank camping along the Kitimat river. The working group will consider issues such as access to the river, pollution and how to control extended camping along the river.
That vote came after council split five to two again to defeat a motion by Councillor Mary Murphy to stop riverside camping altogether.
A proposal from District staff to put access gates at three locations, the Giant Spruce Road, the Sewage Plant and the Pump House was tabled for the time being. However, the councilors and staff marked the pump house gate as a priority for study by the engineering staff due to concerns that “the risk of fuel, oil and other contaminants (i.e. Illegal dumping ) occurring. This is the source water area for the city’s water supply, reducing access reduces contamination risks.” Staff said that unlike other portions of the riverbank, the District does “have authority under drinking water protection act to protect this area.”
Council also voted to close Hirsh Creek park immediately because the roads at the camping area were washed out by the flood last week.
Councillors noted that many people still go to Hirsch Creek after the gates are closed at the end of the season to walk dogs or hike. This results in a parking jam at the front of the gate and on busy times, cars park on Highway 37 which could endanger pedestrians.
District staff will study moving the park gate down further to a point that the road narrows near the first campsite to allow safe access for dog walkers and hikers.
The main problem facing the District of Kitimat is that most popular sites along the riverbank for campers are on provincially owned Crown land. In 2014, the former BC Liberal government passed a regulation that says people can camp on Crown land for up to 14 days. As some councillors pointed out this restriction regularly abused by some campers who stay on the riverbank for weeks, some apparently camping from Victoria Day to Labour Day.
During the debate it was pointed out that often those camp on the riverbank like to “claim” a camping/fishing spot and try to prevent others from using it. “I know of a couple of fistfights,” Murphy told Council.
As Councillor Rob Goffinet pointed out, whether or not the District could place gates on municipal land to stop access to provincial Crown land would require a legal opinion.
Murphy told Council that she had received emails, blaming Kitimat for “almost drowning” some of the campers. She said that her views may be unpopular among some residents, but added, “I don’t care if I’m unpopular, I want to keep people safe.”
Councillor Larry Walker, who pointed out that he likes of fish along the river, who supported Murphy’s motion told his colleagues to get their act together and “do something about the riverbank.” He later proposed that if council does nothing, perhaps Kitimat should hold a referendum on the future use of the river bank.
The majority on Council were more cautious, while acknowledging problems. They pointed out that the many of the campers both on the east bank and on the west bank at Radley Park patronize local businesses during the summer months.
While there was wide discussion on social media before the council meeting, only three people showed up to give their opinions, mostly concerned about permitting access to the river for people with mobility issues or small children.
There were many comments and questions about how other areas police provincial Crown Land, with some saying that some places restrict access to only a couple of days. However, no one either on Council or staff had any idea of what exactly other locations are doing, if anything.
There were no details of how the working group would operate and who would participate. During the debate it was pointed out that as well as the province, participants would have to include Rio Tinto, LNG Canada and DFO. As well, Council did not set a deadline for the working group to report back.
As Murphy pointed out back in 2014, Fisheries and Oceans refused to attend a Council meeting or make a public presentations on its views of the river bank situation. (DFO snubs District of Kitimat Council for a second time ) while offering to meet with staff “they will continue to meet at an operational level to provide information on DFO’s regulatory role.” That, of course came during the Stephen Harper administration which severely restricted any public participation by the civil service on environmental issues. Whether the Justin Trudeau government has changed that policy remains to be seen.
Was the rain storm an anomoly?
During the debate, Mayor Phil Germuth, pointed to the sudden onslaught of rain during Sunday and Monday September 10 and 11 and called it “an anomaly” which means that Kitimat should not overreact to the storm.
Climate science has repeatedly shown that global warming is increasing the odds of extreme precipitation and storm surge flooding. Refusing to acknowledge this impairs our ability to prepare for future extreme weather and endangers American lives and property.
Scientists can now even evaluate how much climate change has increased the odds of individual extreme events, including rainfall and flooding.
As the 2015 American Meteorological Society report quoted by The Times indicates, those unpredictable and extreme events don’t just include floods but the widespread forest fires in Alaska in 2014 and we all know how bad the fire season has been in British Columbia this year.
As Noah Diffenbaugh of Standford University pointed out in The Times
Being smart about managing exposure and vulnerability is critical to reducing risks. But doing so requires acknowledging that global warming is happening, that humans are the primary cause and that the odds of catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey are increasing.
Malaysia’s energy company remains committed to developing its gas assets in Canada
KUALA LUMPUR, 26 July 2017 – PETRONAS and its partners have decided not to proceed with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project at Port Edward in British Columbia, Canada.
The decision was made after a careful and total review of the project amid changes in market conditions.
PETRONAS’ Executive Vice President & Chief Executive Officer Upstream, Anuar Taib said, “We are disappointed that the extremely challenging environment brought about by the prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry have led us to this decision.”
“We, along with our North Montney Joint Venture partners, remain committed to developing our significant natural gas assets in Canada and will continue to explore all options as part of our long-term investment strategy moving forward,” added Anuar.
PETRONAS’ commitment in Canada continues through Progress Energy Canada Ltd and its world-class inventory of natural gas resources where the subsidiary plays a key role in supporting PETRONAS’ growth strategy in North America.
PETRONAS and the project’s partners are thankful for the support received from everyone involved, especially the area First Nations, the District of Port Edward, the City of Prince Rupert and their communities for their invaluable involvement and efforts in the project.
LNG Canada says the Kitimat liquified natural gas project “has been delayed and not cancelled” with a Final Investment Decision possible in the next 18 to 24 months, Director of External Relations Susannah Pierce told a company sponsored community pizza party at Riverlodge on Tuesday October 18, 2016.
She paid tribute to the support for the project from Kitimat and the Haisla Nation, saying, “Thanks to you we were very close to have our shareholders take the Final Investment Decision in the New Year,” but she then added, “You also know there were some things we couldn’t control like the state of the marketplace.”
Pierce used the analogy of someone saving up to buy a car and believing that they have enough money in the bank and then the conditions change. “That is what happened to us,” she said. “You still want the car, but you just have to wait a little longer.”
Pierce said that the current program of site preparation will pause for the winter and holidays in mid-December. After that “work will begin to wind down over the next few months and then we will preserve the site until we are ready to make the Final Investment Decision.” She said LNG Canada is studying ways to make site preservation cost effective.
“We are doing everything we can to keep our pencils sharp and keep the community informed so that when the project is approved we are ready,” she added.
She pointed out that LNG Canada has already built a fisheries habitat offset in preparation for full development of the site.
LNG Canada and its partner shareholders are keeping a close eye on the developments of the natural gas market in Asia and Pierce said, “We do expect to be sending LNG to the Asian market in the next decade, so 2023 and beyond is what we’re talking about.”
She said that the Final Investment Decision when it comes will bring opportunities for Kitimat, the province and the whole country.
“Everyone in this room and everyone at LNG Canada is working to make this project real,” Pierce said.
“For those who are staying with us, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to be available to the community for an number of events. Let’s make it happen. We do have a shot at making it real but it may not happen as soon as you’d like it.”
Monday’s decision by LNG Canada to postpone the all-important Final Investment Decision for the Kitimat liguified natural gas project came as a momentary shock—but no real surprise. After the Brexit vote, you could see the hold button blinking from across the Atlantic.
Andy Calitz CEO of LNG Canada and a long time, experienced, executive with the lead partner, Royal Dutch Shell blamed the current market conditions for natural gas in both a news release and an investors’ conference call. However, the turmoil in the world economy brought about by Britain’s (largely unexpected) vote to leave the European Union made the postponement inevitable.
Immediately after the vote on June 23, when the now not so United Kingdom voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, to leave the European Union, financial analysts predicted that given the uncertainty, companies based in the United Kingdom would immediately begin to adjust their long term planning.
The stock market has stabilized and reached new highs, at least for now, but the British pound remains weak.
Most important, according to reports in the business press around the world, many long term projects by companies not only in the UK but everywhere are being re-examined, postponed or cancelled. All due to the long term uncertainty in world markets.
Even without Brexit, the situation with long term planning for the natural gas market is complicated, as LNG Canada’s External Affairs Director Susannah Pierce explained in this interview on CKNW ‘s Jon McComb show. ( It is an informative interview. Autoplays on opening the page)
“ Postpone investment decisions”
Royal Dutch Shell is one of the world’s largest corporations. It is based in the United Kingdom although its corporate headquarters are in the Netherlands (also a member of the European Union).
From June 24 to July 11 was just enough time for the bean counters and forecasters in London, Vancouver, Calgary, Tokyo and Beijing to crunch the numbers and decide that the prudent move would be to put the LNG Canada project on hold.
Rio Tinto is also a dual national company, listed on both the London and Australian stock exchanges and with its headquarters in London. (More about Rio Tinto later.)
Although both Shell and Rio Tinto are giant transnationals with operations worldwide, the turmoil in the United Kingdom, in the corridors and cubicles of the home offices, is having a psychological and personal, as well as professional, impact, meaning more of the work in those towers of London will be focused on Brexit.
The decision doesn’t mean that the LNG Canada Final Investment Decision will be on hold forever. Of all the world’s energy companies, Shell is one of the oldest and it has a solid reputation for better long term planning than some of its competitors.
In the news release, Calitz noted
I can’t say enough about how valuable this support has been and how important it will be as we look at a range of options to move the project forward towards a positive FID by the Joint Venture participants.
The news release goes on to say
However, in the context of global industry challenges, including capital constraints, the LNG Canada Joint Venture participants have determined they need more time prior to taking a final investment decision. decision.
How much time? Well, as Theresa May became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the New York Times noted, like other media, that investment decisions are on hold:
Ms. May does not plan to depart the union quickly because it could put Britain’s negotiators under pressure, and at a disadvantage…
And the longer Britain drifts, the greater the uncertainty for businesses that could postpone investment decisions until things are clearer, potentially pushing the nation into a recession.
The extrication of Britain from Europe will likely be more in the character of the Greek financial collapse, a seemingly endless process where each event and each piece of news has the power to set off a new round of financial fears.
And like the Greek crisis, each piece of bad news will compound fears in markets that were nervous for other reasons.
So once (and when) Theresa May invokes Article 50 that opens a two year window for Britain to leave the European Union, starting negotiations for Brexit. Then it gets complicated, if Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom or if Northern Ireland also demands a dual referendum in both the Republic and the North on a united Ireland (as permitted under the Good Friday Peace Agreement).
Although May says she will continue to the UK`s next fixed date election, what if May calls a snap general election, with an uncertain outcome, perhaps another minority government, with seats split among several parties, including those who advocate remaining in the EU?
The price of oil is still low compared to a few years ago. That price is expected to remain low with all that the Saudis are pumping to retain market share, the Iranians want to recover from sanctions, and according to Pittis in another column, that means everyone else is pumping as well
The main thrust for Canadian producers is to build more pipelines so they can expand capacity and push ever more of their relatively expensive oil into the world supply chain. If that’s the strategy for high-cost producers, how could anyone think the world’s lower-cost producers wouldn’t be doing the same thing?
There is the glut of natural gas currently in Asian markets and no one knows what Brexit will mean. Unless there’s a drastic change in the marketplace, energy project investment will remain on hold for years to come. (So forget any dreams of a refinery anywhere on the coast. )
Brexit is also going to be a problem for London based Rio Tinto—and for the current negotiations with the Unifor local in Kitimat. Rio Tinto’s bottom line is weak because the price of iron ore, its main source of income, has been dropping. After completing the $4.8 billion Kitimat Modernization Project, Rio Tinto is spending huge amounts of money on its Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold and other minerals mine in Mongolia, a project that many analysts believe could provide up to 60 per cent of Rio Tinto profits as commodity markets recover.
Add to that US presidential election. Donald Trump has threatened to halt imports of both steel and aluminum into the United States if he actually gets to sit in the White House.
Given the flood of steel and aluminum on the global markets, however, it points to the fact that free trade also has to be fair trade.
That means if Hilary Clinton becomes president, she will also be looking at the state of aluminum imports to the United States market.
World conditions are a warning for the Unifor negotiating team in Kitimat. One reason for last year’s prolonged municipal strike was that Unifor spent a good deal of time planning for negotiations with the District but failed to adjust its contract demands when the price of oil unexpectedly collapsed, which meant the District had less money and a lot less flexibility.
In its negotiations with Rio Tinto, Unifor cannot make the same mistake again. There were a handful of unexpected layoffs down at Smeltersite on June 30; there could be more layoffs in the future. Mandatory overtime is a major sticking point—but that overtime demand is coming from the bean counters in Montreal and London, calculating that the overtime costs are, in the long term, less expensive than a lot of new hires.
Media reports show that Rio Tinto is in tough negotiations with its employees around the world. With LNG on hold, disgruntled employees can’t just turn off Haisla Boulevard to the old Methanex site before reaching Rio Tinto’s property line. That means Unifor should be tough but very realistic in its talks with Rio Tinto, knowing that the powers that be that hold the strings in London are more worried about what Brexit will do to the company bottom line than any temporary shutdown of the smelter by a strike.
What does this mean for Kitimat?
So the boom and bust cycle once again moves to bust.
the Haisla nation has been working to get its people jobs in the construction of the facility and related infrastructure, as well as full-time jobs once the plant opens…This was our first chance as Haisla to be a part of the economy, to be part of the wealth distribution in our area. To witness the wealth generation in our territory for the last six years but to not be a part of it, and now to continue to not be a part of it, is really distressing to us, because we had built up our entire future around this.
Mayor Phil Germuth in the same interview said
There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a little bit of hurt for a while, but we still fully believe that Kitimat is by far the absolute best location anywhere on the West Coast [for] a major LNG export facility… We are absolutely confident that it will come.
There’s time in this bust for everyone in town to recover from the hangover of the past few years of the fight over Northern Gateway and the heady hopes of the LNG rush. Demand for natural gas is not going to go away, especially as climate change raises the pressure to eliminate coal, so it is likely that LNG Canada will be revived.
It’s time to seriously consider how to diversify the Valley’s economy, making it less dependent on the commodity cycle. It’s time to stop chasing industrial pipe dreams that promise a few jobs that never appear.
Like it or not, the valley is tied to globalization and decisions made half way around the world impact the Kitimat Valley.
Who knows what will happen in 2020 or 2025 when the next equivalent of a Brexit shocks the world economy?
Suppose, as some here would wish, that all the opposition to tankers and pipelines suddenly disappeared overnight. Does that mean that the projects would then go ahead?
The corporate planners would decide based on their projections for the world economy and the viability of the project for their profit picture. Enbridge was never really able to secure customers for its bitumen. Chevron had no customers for Kitimat LNG. LNG Canada is a partnership, and the partner customers in Asia decided that at this time, the investment is too risky, even if LNG Canada’s longer term prospects are good.
Promoting tourism should now be the priority for Council, for Economic Development, for the Haisla Nation Council, for the local business.
Beyond tourism, it’s time for some innovative thinking to come up with other ideas that would free Kitimat from the commodity cycle. At the moment there are no ideas on the horizon, but unless everyone starts looking for new ideas, practical ideas, the commodity cycle will rule.
The Shell-led LNG Canada project in Kitimat has received a facility permit from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), the company said Tuesday.
A news release from LNG Canada says the permit is one of the key permits required for the construction and operation of the proposed LNG Canada project.
LNG Canada is the first LNG project in British Columbia to receive this permit, which focuses on public and environmental safety, and specifies the requirements the project must comply with when designing, constructing and operating the proposed LNG export facility in Kitimat.
The news release warns “that while today’s announcement is an important step forward for LNG Canada, the project must ensure it is economically viable and meets several other significant milestones including finalizing engineering and cost estimates, supply of labour, and achieving other critical regulatory approvals before making a final investment decision.”
That means that Shell and its partners are still keeping a close eye on factors such as the continuing collapse of the price of oil on world markets, the volatile natural gas market in Asia and the slowdown in the economy in China.
The news release goes on to say:
“We have made excellent progress in the past two years, achieving a number of critical milestones,” said Andy Calitz, CEO of LNG Canada. “Receiving our LNG Facility Permit could not have been achieved without the important input we received from the Haisla Nation and the local community of Kitimat. We continue to progress our project and appreciate the ongoing support from First Nations, the local community and other stakeholders.”
“The OGC identified several conditions that must be met by LNG Canada to design, construct and operate the project,” says Calitz. “We have reviewed these conditions and are confident that we will meet these conditions as they are aligned with LNG Canada’s core safety values and commitment to protect the environment, the community and our workers.”
LNG Canada continues to develop a number of important plans to address public safety and minimize the effects on the environment and local community. For example, LNG Canada is working closely with local emergency response organizations, as well as leading safety experts, in the development of an emergency response framework for the proposed project.
“Safety is our first priority. Safety as it relates to people and the environment is embedded into the design and planning of our proposed facility, and will carry into the construction and operation phases of our project should the project go ahead,” said Andy Calitz.
Social and economic benefits from the LNG Canada project include local employment and procurement opportunities, federal, provincial and municipal government revenue and community investments. Since 2012, LNG Canada has distributed more than $1 million to community initiatives, such as emergency services, trades scholarships and community services. LNG Canada has also contributed more than $1.5 million in programs to build awareness and help provide training for trades careers in all industries, and particularly the emerging LNG industry.
LNG Canada is a joint venture company comprised of Shell Canada Energy (50%), an affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell plc, and affiliates of PetroChina (20%), Korea Gas Corporation (15%) and Mitsubishi Corporation (15%). The joint venture is proposing to build an LNG export facility in Kitimat that initially consists of two LNG processing units referred to as “trains,” each with the capacity to produce 6.5 million tonnes per annum of LNG annually, with an option to expand the project in the future to four trains.
The British Columbia Environmental Appeal Board has upheld Rio Tinto’s plans for sulphur dioxide emissions in the Kitimat airshed and dismissed the appeal from residents Emily Toews and Elisabeth Stannus.
The 113 page decision was released by the EAB late on December 23. It contains a series of recommendations for further studies and monitoring of the health of Kitimat residents. In effect, the EAB is asking the province (which is all it can do) to spend money and create a new bureaucracy at a time when Kitimat’s medical community is already short staffed and under stress.
By December 31, 2016…. engage with Ministry executive to secure their support for, and action to encourage, a provincially-led Kitimat region health study, based on the development of a feasibility assessment for such a study.
On December 24, Gaby Poirier, General manager – BC Operations
Rio Tinto, Aluminium Products Group released a statement saying:
Based on the evidence and submissions made by each of the parties, the EAB confirmed our permit amendment.
Although it is welcome news for Rio Tinto that the MOE Director’s decision was upheld, and the rigor and cautious approach of the science were confirmed by the EAB, we also recognize that there is more work to do to address community concerns regarding air quality in the Kitimat Valley.
In providing their confirmation, the EAB included a series of recommendations. Over the coming months, we will be working to fully assess them and we will continue to involve the local community including residents, stakeholders and our employees as we do so, noting that some of the recommendations have already started to be implemented.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the residents of Kitimat, our valued stakeholders and our employees for their support during this process. At Rio Tinto, we are committed to protecting the health and well-being of our employees, the community, and the environment as we modernize our BC Operations.
Members of Unifor 2301 rallied in front of the Rio Tinto offices at City Centre Mall in Kitimat, Wednesday, October 7, to protest against what they called “precarious work” and health and safety issues at the Rio Tinto BC Operations aluminum smelter.
The rally was part what the union calls a “Rio Tinto Global Day of Action” aimed at Rio Tinto operations in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia. Unifor 2301 is part of the “Rio Tinto Global Union Network,”
Sean O’Driscoll, president of the local, concentrated on what he said was an increasingly tense relationship with Rio Tinto over health and safety issues. O’Driscoll told a group of supporters that relations with the company over health and safety have gone down hill since Rio Tinto took over Alcan. He said the CAW, predecessor to Unifor, had negotiated a strong health and safety agreement with Alcan that Rio Tinto is now trying to weaken down to minimum government imposed standards.
O’Driscoll said that the list of grievances between the union and management are growing and that instead of trying to solve the grievances, RIo Tinto has filed a grievance of its own claiming the union has filed too many grievances.
The main reason for the rally was a worldwide protest over what the union calls “precarious work,” the use of short term, usually poorly trained workers, what most industries call call “casuals” to save money. The other issue at the protest was increasing contracting out.
O’Driscoll also pointed to the controversial issue of increased sulphur dioxide emissions from the upgraded smelter. Unifor has joined environmental groups in a successful court challenge to the BC Environmental Assessment Agency’s approval of the emission plan.
Kitimat Unifor local 2301 has succeeded in forcing the Environmental Assessment Board (EAB) to take responsibility for investigating the impact of plans for a dramatic increase of sulphur dioxide (SO2) at the Rio Tinto smelter in Kitimat. The BC Supreme Court has sided with Unifor in a judicial review involving the Ministry of Environment’s approval of the smelter’s expansion without a SO2 “scrubber”.
The project will increase SO2 emissions from 27 tonnes per day to 42 tonnes per day.
“Expanding the smelter without a scrubber is a terrible health risk to my community,” said Sean O’Driscoll, Unifor Local 2301 President. “We’re very pleased that Rio Tinto’s proposal will have to go through an environmental assessment. It’s a shame that it takes a Supreme Court Judge to force the BC Liberal government to do the right thing.”
The decision to approve the smelter expansion without scrubbers will now be sent back to the EAB.
Airborne sulphur dioxide is a well-known cause of respiratory ailments. Excessive SO2 levels in Kitimat are likely already impacting human health. In July 2012 a Community Health Synopsis study published by Northern Health concluded that the incidence of death from bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma is 60 per cent higher in Kitimat than the British Columbian average. Expert evidence known to the Minister of the Environment reveals that increased SO2 can cause serious health problems, including fatal respiratory failure.
In the decision, BC Supreme Court Justice W.F. Ehrcke wrote that it was unreasonable for the EAB to conclude that Unifor’s appeal must be rejected on the ground that the 2014 Letter of Approval to Rio Tinto was not an appealable decision within the meaning of the Act.
Other challenges to the emissions of sulphur dioxide from the Rio Tinto smelter are continuing.
The study shows that embryonic salmon and herring exposed to very low levels of crude oil can develop hidden heart defects that compromise their later survival.
That means that the Exxon Valdez spill on March 24, 1989 may have had much greater impacts on spawning fish than previously recognized, according to the study published in Nature’s online journal Scientific ReportsVery low embyronic crude oil exposures cause lasting defects in salmon and herring.
“These juvenile fish on the outside look completely normal, but their hearts are not functioning properly and that translates directly into reduced swimming ability and reduced survival,” said John Incardona, a research toxicologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) in Seattle. “In terms of impacts to shore-spawning fish, the oil spill likely had a much bigger footprint than anyone realized.”
Previous research has shown that crude oil disrupts the contraction of the fish heart muscle cells. Embryonic fish exposed to trace levels of crude oil grow into juveniles with abnormal hearts and reduced cardiorespiratory function.
“With this very early impact on the heart, you end up with an animal that just can’t pump blood through its body as well, which means it can’t swim as well to capture food, form schools, or migrate,” said Mark Carls, toxicologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Crude oil is changing basic physiology, or what makes a fish a fish.”
The research builds on earlier work by the Auke Bay Laboratories, part of NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which found much reduced survival of pink salmon exposed as embryos to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from crude oil.
“Our findings are changing the picture in terms of assessing the risk and the potential impacts of oil spills,” said Nat Scholz, leader of the NWFSC’s ecotoxicology program and a coauthor of the new study. “We now know the developing fish heart is exquisitely sensitive to crude oil toxicity, and that subtle changes in heart formation can have delayed but important consequences for first-year survival, which in turn determines the long-term abundance of wild fish populations.”
The Exxon Valdez spill was the largest in U.S. history, with extensive oiling of shoreline spawning habitats for Pacific herring and pink salmon, the two most important commercial fish species in Prince William Sound.
Herring larvae sampled in proximity to oil were visibly abnormal, and mortality rates were higher for pink salmon embryos at oil spill sites than unaffected regions.
The herring fishery collapsed three to four years after the spill, when the herring spawned in oiled areas reached reproductive maturity.
The paper notes that the contribution of the spill to the herring population collapse, if any, was never determined and remains controversial.
Other studies, however, tend to confirm the findings, including heart problems for fish exposed to the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon spill and even fish exposed to naturally occurring oil seeps.
The new findings suggest that the delayed effects of the spill may have been important contributors to the declines.
Scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Alaska Fisheries Science Center temporarily exposed embryonic salmon and herring to low levels of crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska and found that both absorbed chemicals at similar concentrations in their tissues. The embryos were then transferred to clean seawater and raised as juvenile fish for seven to eight months.
Few of the exposed embryos were outwardly abnormal in any way. However, closer examination of the fish revealed subtle defects that could reduce their long-term survival.
Juvenile salmon exposed to oil grew more slowly, with those exposed to the highest concentrations growing the slowest. For salmon, early survival in the ocean is strongly influenced by juvenile growth, with smaller fish suffering higher loss to predators.
Scientists used swimming speed as a measure of cardiorespiratory performance and found that fish exposed to the highest concentrations of oil swam the slowest. Slower swimming is an indication of reduced aerobic capacity and cardiac output, and likely makes fish easier targets for predators.
Exposure to oil as embryos altered the structural development of the hearts of juvenile fish, potentially reducing their fitness and swimming ability. Poor swimming and cardiac fitness is also a factor in disease resistance.
Earlier studies on the ecosystem-scale crash of the Prince William Sound herring population several years after the Exxon Valdez spill were based on higher levels of exposure to the oil. The new study shows that that cardiac injury occurs in normal-appearing fish that survive even lower level exposures.
The scientists reviewed data on measured oil concentrations in surface water samples collected in Prince William Sound after the oil spill and during the 1989 herring spawning season. Most of the 233 samples contained less oil than was believed to be toxic to herring at the time, based on visible gross developmental abnormalities. However, nearly all of the samples contained oil at or above concentrations shown in the new study to alter heart development.
If the Exxon Valdez spill impacted heart development among a large majority of fish that were spawned in proximity to oiled shorelines, the subsequent losses of juveniles to delayed mortality would have left fewer adults to join the population. Although not direct proof, this provides a plausible explanation for the collapse of the Prince William Sound herring stock four years later, when fish spawned during the oil spill would have matured.
The study concludes that the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill on near shore spawning populations of fish are likely to have been considerably underestimated in terms of both the geographic extent of affected habitat and the lingering toxicity of low levels of oil. The findings will likely contribute to more accurate assessments of the impacts of future oil spills, Incardona said. “Now we have a much better idea of what we should be looking for,” he said.
That means, according to the study “that the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on populations of near shore spawning fish are likely to have been considerably underestimated, in term of both the geographic extent of affected habitats and the lingering toxicity of low levels of residual oil.”
The report calls for more studies of the sensitivity of the developing fish heart since the vulnerability “also has implications for other pollution sources in marine ecosystems, including increasing maritime vessel traffic and expanding land-based urban runoff.”
Scientific studies after the Exxon Valdez spill indicated that the vast majority of species recovered following the spill and that functioning ecosystems, similar to those existing pre-spill, were established.
Species for which recovery is not fully apparent, such as Pacific herring, killer whales, and pigeon guillemots, appear to have been affected by other environmental factors or human influences not associated with the oil spill. Insufficient pre-spill baseline data on these species contributed to difficulties in determining the extent of spill effects.
Based on the evidence, the Panel finds that natural recovery of the aquatic environment after an oil spill is likely to be the primary recovery mechanism, particularly for marine spills. Both freshwater and marine ecosystem recovery is further mitigated where cleanup is possible, effective, and beneficial to the environment.
Natural processes that degrade oil would begin immediately following a spill. Although residual oil could remain buried in sediments for years, the Panel finds that toxicity associated with that oil would decline over time and would not cause widespread, long-term impacts.