Blair King: On dilbit, oil spill response, and political gamesmanship

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      By Blair King

      As many of my readers know my day job involves investigating and remediating contaminated sites. My particular specialty is the investigation and remediation of petroleum hydrocarbon impacts (and before anyone asks, no I have never worked for Kinder Morgan nor do I have any conflicts of interest associated with the Trans Mountain file).

      I have a PhD in chemistry and environmental studies and have spent the last 18 years learning how hydrocarbons behave when spilled in the natural environment. This post comes out of my surprise at the provincial government’s announcement that it is proposing a freeze on increases in the transportation of dilute bitumen (dilbit) until they can create an independent scientific advisory panel to help address the scientific uncertainties outlined in the  Royal Society of Canada (RSC) expert panel report The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments. 

      The reason for my surprise is that, unlike most British Columbians, I have read the RSC report and the uncertainties expressed in the RSC report are not going to substantially change how spill response is planned or carried out in the west coast of B.C.

      Before we go further I am going to make a blanket statement. It is my belief, informed by my years of study and practical experience in the field, that we know enough about how diluted bitumen (dilbit) will behave when spilled to design a world-class spill response regime.

      Why do I make such a statement? Let’s start by dispelling some myths.

      The first thing to understand is that virtually everything the activists (and certain politicians) tell you about dilbit is wrong. I have previously described the state of the research on dilbit and its behaviour in marine environments.

      To summarize, the research shows that dilbit behaves pretty much like other heavy oils in a spill scenario. In the marine environment dilbit floats, which is understandable based on it being a non-polar liquid with a density less than seawater.

      In freshwater environments the blend of dilbit and the length of time after the spill event will define how it behaves. Sometimes it will float for days on end and sometimes it will float for only a few days and then sink; as this graph from the National Academies of Science (NAS) report on the subject displays:

      Whether it sinks or floats is something you can predict once you know the blend of the dilbit (see the difference between the two blends in the figure) and the conditions in the freshwater environment. If the dilbit spills into really silty water (either fresh or seawater) it will form oil-particle aggregates (OPAs) which, under certain conditions, will sink to the bottom.

      In other cases it gets entrained in the water column (and thus can become harder to clean). Once again, this is almost exactly what all heavy crude oils do in the same conditions.

      To summarize, dilbit is not some existential threat to humankind, it is like many other heavy crude oils out there. When spilled it will cause a mess, but no bigger mess than a similar heavy oil.

      The world community has lots of practice and knowledge about how to handle heavy oil spills. This is a topic about which a huge amount of time, money and intellectual energy has been directed. The expertise of the world community can be used to inform our spill response.

      At this point I can hear the activist saying: but what about the RSC report? To them I say: try actually reading the report.

      You see, the report is about all crude oils spills, so very little of its content refers to dilbit per se, rather the report is about all crude oils including dilbit. This is an important distinction because most of the recommendations for further research proposed by the RSC are general in nature and reflect all oils not just dilbit.

      Let’s look at what the executive summary says are the “high-priority research needs”:

      High-Priority Research Needs Identified by the Expert Panel

      1. Research is needed to better understand the environmental impact of spilled crude oil in high-risk and poorly understood areas, such as Arctic waters, the deep ocean and shores or inland rivers and wetlands.

      2. Research is needed to increase the understanding of effects of oil spills on aquatic life and wildlife at the population, community and ecosystem levels.

      3. A national, priority-directed program of baseline research and monitoring is needed to develop an understanding of the environmental and ecological characteristics of areas that may be affected by oil spills in the future and to identify any unique sensitivity to oil effects.

      4. A program of controlled field research is needed to better understand spill behaviour and effects across a spectrum of crude oil types in different ecosystems and conditions.

      5. Research is needed to investigate the efficacy of spill responses and to take full advantage of ‘spills of opportunity’.

      6. Research is needed to improve spill prevention and develop/apply response decision support systems to ensure sound response decisions and effectiveness.

      7. Research is needed to update and refine risk assessment protocols for oil spills in Canada.

      Notice the the terms used: “better understand”, “increase the understanding”, “improve”, and “update”. These aren’t the terms of a group that knows nothing about a topic, these are the terms of a group that wants to see incremental gains to our knowledge-base.

      Why is this important? Well because our provincial government has not banned the movement of ALL oil products even though the RSC report expresses concerns about all oil products. The provincial government has only expressed concern about one type of oil: dilbit. There is a serious disconnect here. It is almost as if the ban is not based on science but is instead a bit of political gamesmanship.

      That being said research has advanced since the RSC report was published. What does the current research say? As Natural Resources Canada research scientist Dr. Heather Dettman points out:

      light crude, a low-viscosity oil, may actually be more hazardous [than dilbit]. When light crude hits water, it’s “like adding cream to coffee. That’s it. It’s all mixed in, it gets stuck in the sediment.”

      Dr. Dettman pointed to the 2010 dilbit spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

      It looks ugly and it’s not good for the fish. But because it’s there you can see it, you can pick it up, and then it’s gone,” she said. “We get a very high recovery rate.

      Here is a longer discussion with her on the radio. As Dr. Dettman points out, we have practical experience with handling a dilbit spill in in the Burrard Inlet and the results were heartening. Virtually no OPAs were formed and most of the dilbit was recovered. This was a lucky spill however, as it occurred in an area with limited wave action and no storms. Now let’s go back to Dr. Detman.

      Dr. Dettman said she and her team have built substantially on the body of dilbit research since the Royal Society report was released three years ago. Their experiments – performed in an open tank filled with fresh North Saskatchewan River water – show that various blends of diluted bitumen won’t sink until the sludge has been left alone for at least 21 days, she said.

      Even then, she added, only one type of bitumen found its way to the tank floor, even in warm conditions.

      She said the data seem to indicate diluted bitumen tends to form a hardy slick on the water’s surface—a spill that can be somewhat contained—rather than dissolve into the water and end up coating riverbeds and marine life.

      “The misinformation is that diluted bitumen will sink,” Dr. Dettman said. “But it’s not sinking.”

      The reality of the situation is that any oil spill, be it crude oil or diluted bitumen, represents a tragedy and catastrophe. It will harm the natural environment, will kill some marine organisms, and will be very hard to clean up.

      The point of this blog post is that a diluted bitumen spill would not be a uniquely catastrophic situation. It would be comparable to a spill of any other heavy crude…you know the products that have been safely shipped in and through the Salish Sea for the last 50+ years.

      Banning the transport of dilbit until we have done more research has no basis in science. It is a political game.

      Any “independent scientific advisory panel” will end up concluding that we have the information to design a world-class spill regime. Anyone who says otherwise is either not aware of the state of research in the field of spill response or has a political axe to grind. You can decide where our current government and the anti-pipeline activists stand on this topic.