Call it the Keystone XL Pipeline of animal rights.

The fate of SeaWorld’s $100 million Blue World Project — a doubling of killer whale space — rests in the hands of the California Coastal Commission on Thursday in a showdown being framed as the most crucial in the history of orca advocacy.

SeaWorld map of planned expansion for Blue World Project. Image via California Coastal Commission
SeaWorld map of planned expansion for Blue World Project. Image via California Coastal Commission

“There has never been a more important time to speak up for the orcas held captive at SeaWorld,” said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

For Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment, Blue World’s OK represents a chance to reverse its business slide in the wake of the critical “Blackfish” documentary and former trainer John Hargrove’s book “Beneath the Surface.”

Via an email blast Tuesday, Newkirk called on backers to skip work to attend the daylong meeting and “help us make this the largest SeaWorld protest ever.”

With allies including famed primatologist Jane Goodall and sea explorer Jean-Michael Cousteau, PETA has called on the commission to reject the tanks when it meets in Long Beach.

Artist's conception of Blue World Project viewing area. Image via SeaWorld Entertainment
Artist’s conception of Blue World Project viewing area. Image via SeaWorld Entertainment

Commission staff has urged approval — with eight “special conditions.”

“Even though the hearing will take place during a weekday, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple hundred people turn up to urge the commission to vote no,” said PETA spokesman David Perle.

Taking SeaWorld’s side are dozens of politicians, business and tourism groups and even a local plumbers and steamfitters union.

Unlike the Keystone XL Pipeline — the environmental flashpoint revealing a partisan divide — office-holders of all stripes have closed ranks behind the San Diego theme park.

Among them is Rep. Scott Peters, a San Diego Democrat who served one three-year term on the Coastal Commission.

He wrote the panel Oct. 1: “The Blue World Project will significantly improve the orca environment and establish an educational center for scientists and the public.”

Other Democrats urging approval of the Blue World Project include Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, state Sen. Marty Block, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas.

California Coastal Commssion staff report on Sea World's Blue World Project. (PDF)
California Coastal Commssion staff report on SeaWorld’s Blue World Project. (PDF)

Republicans backing SeaWorld include San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Five others members of the San Diego City Council sent the commission letters urging approval — Chris Cate, Myrtle Cole, Todd Gloria, Scott Sherman and Lorie Zapf.

Speakers Thursday will include Jared Goodman, the PETA Foundation’s director of animal law, Perle said. Orca expert Naomi Rose will attend as well.

The Coastal Commission has 12 voting members, all appointees, including six “public members” and six local elected officials. San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox is one of them.

The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the Seaside Ballroom at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 300 E Ocean Blvd. PETA plans a 7:45 a.m. rally at East Ocean and Long Beach boulevards and says activists who RSVP will get a free lunch.

The public can watch the hearing via live Web coverage Thursday.

Orca rights activists will argue that if the project is approved, SeaWorld could lawfully hold 94 killer whales in its tanks — nearly double the number of orcas in theme parks worldwide. SeaWorld wants to add a 450,000-gallon pool and a 5.2 million-gallon pool — 1.5 acres of surface area.

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“Although SeaWorld has stated that its orca population ‘will not significantly increase’ other than ‘incrementally through sustainable population growth,’ it has yet to quantify sustainable, incremental growth and define what it considers a significant increase,” spokesman Perle told Times of San Diego.

In case the project is approved, the Animal Legal Defense Fund wants the Coastal Commission to stipulate that only 11 orcas be allowed in Blue World — naming Corky, Kasatka, Ulises, Orkid, Keet, Shouka, Nakai, Ikaika, Kalia, Makani and Amaya — and that SeaWorld be barred from breeding killer whales, “either through mating or artificial insemination.”

A letter signed by 18 scientists — led by Goodall and the son of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau — called Blue World a “display tank” primarily designed to enhance the public’s viewing experience.

Addendum to Blue World Project report, including letters of support and opposition. (PDF)
Addendum to Blue World Project report, including letters of support and opposition. (PDF)

“As such, the tank will only be available to some of the orca, some of the time, and in no way constitutes enhanced ‘habitat’ for all of the whales,” said the Sept. 15 statement.

Among the signatories was UC Davis orca biologist Deborah Giles. But among SeaWorld’s supporters is Linda Lowenstine, a UC Davis professor of veterinary pathology.

“Innovative environments such as the proposed Blue World project are enormously beneficial for the animals and extremely valuable for scientists, educators and visitors,” Lowenstine wrote the commission. “I encourage you to support this project.”

More than 60 letters backing the Blue World Project are included in a 514-page addendum to the 94-page staff report. Opponents of the orca tank expansion submitted 25 letters — along with 135,000 notes of support or petition signatures.

Animal-rights lawyer Goodman told the commission he wrote on behalf of 3 million PETA members (including 28,000 in San Diego) and called SeaWorld’s expansion plan “an enormous step backward for animals abused in the entertainment industry at a time when public opinion has shifted away from captivity and decision-makers in the state are working to put an end to it.”

Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, writing on behalf of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce where he is president and CEO, said in his appeal for approval: “Sea World’s Blue World Project will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the state and region, reaffirming California’s role as a leader in animal care and research.”

PETA’s Newkirk said: “If SeaWorld really wants to improve its image, it should spend its money on projects such as innovative animal-free exhibits that will truly wow people and coastal sanctuaries where marine mammals can feel and experience the ocean, hear their families and perhaps one day be reunited with them. It shouldn’t build a slightly bigger orca prison.”

Supervisor Roberts summarized the pro-Blue World sentiment: “For 50 years, SeaWorld has been a responsible steward of animals, a great community partner and a driving force for local tourism.

“As a major employer, it has served as an important and steadying economic driver in our region. By approving the application to enhance the whale habitat, you will be expanding Sea World ‘s beneficial impacts.”