March ended with a bad week for the oil sands. On the Monday (March 25), the week began with oil sands giant Suncor spilling 2,200 barrels (349,000 litres) of potentially toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River. A broken pipe spewed “process-affected water” for 10 hours before the pipe was finally sealed. The Athabasca River is an important source of drinking water for animals and downstream communities such as Fort Chipewyan.
Wednesday (March 27) saw a CP Railway train derailment lose over 55,000 litres of heavy crude in Western Montana. The freezing temperatures slowed the cleanup efforts while the crude “thickened into a heavy tar-like consistency”.
The worst spill came on Friday (March 29) as an Exxon pipeline burst in Arkansas, gushing about 10,000 barrels (1.59 million litres) of diluted bitumen coming from the Alberta tar sands. The spill was captured in an amateur video that went viral, showing the oil flooding the neighbourhood. It’s well worth watching while remembering the painfully similar spill that occurred closer to home in Burnaby when Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline leaked 250,000 litres into the community.
The recent oil accidents oblige us to take stock and weigh the risks and rewards of the two pipeline proposals in B.C. The Northern Gateway pipeline (NGP) proposal by Enbridge seeks to transport 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen per day from Alberta to Kitimat, where it will be loaded onto oil tankers headed for Asian markets. NGP has received massive opposition from academics, local communities, First Nations, and environmental groups. The criticism is well justified. Enbridge has a shoddy track record for safety. It has had four pipeline leaks in the last two months alone, prompting an NEB engineering assessment. The high-profile spill in Michigan nearly three years ago is still not fully cleaned up after an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling over 3.8 million litres into the Kalamazoo River. At a cost of over $800 million, it is the most expensive pipeline spill in U.S. history, mostly due to the fact that no one had any experience cleaning up diluted bitumen.
It turns out, diluted bitumen is a completely different animal than conventional oil, and cleanup is much more difficult. In order to transport bitumen, a semi-solid tarlike substance extracted in Alberta, it needs to be diluted with heavy chemicals and synthetic crude. Unexpectedly, the diluted bitumen separated after spilling into the Kalamazoo River, with the heavier bitumen component sinking to the bottom of the river and complicating the cleanup efforts.
The other pipeline proposal will build a second pipeline along the existing Trans Mountain pipeline route from Alberta to Burnaby. It will increase pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, all to be loaded onto large oil tankers to be shipped out of the Burrard Inlet. Tanker traffic would increase from 80 to over 400 per year. Although our provincial government hasn’t completed its own risk assessment, the State of Washington took it upon themselves to determine the risk of a major tanker spill. Their study indicated potential risk of 165,000 jobs and $10.8 billion in economic impacts for Washington state alone. That’s similar to the $9.6-billion estimate from UBC for cleanup costs if a major tanker spill occurred in northern B.C.
There is also the question of liability. The pipeline operator’s liability ends after the oil is transferred to the tanker. If a tanker spill occurs, B.C. would look to the shipping company, likely headquartered in a distant country with international law limiting liability to $1.3 billion. Major spills would cost much more than that, putting taxpayers at significant risk.
Well, is the risk worth it? Both pipelines will create thousands of short-term jobs during the construction process. However, the long-term numbers are really what matter. The Enbridge pipeline is expected to only create about 104 permanent long-term jobs (not all in B.C.). The Trans Mountain pipeline, even less, about 35 permanent jobs. For additional tax revenues, the provincial government can expect about $40 million per year from Enbridge and about $10 million annually from Trans Mountain.
A total of $50 million in tax revenues and 139 long-term jobs are nearly insignificant. In comparison, the tourism and fishing industries threatened by an oil spill are worth billions to B.C.’s economy. It’s no surprise there is such great opposition to the pipelines. As the recent oil accidents demonstrate, you simply cannot transport oil safely. It’s not a matter of “if” an oil spill but a matter of “when” and how severe. The economics of these pipelines simply do not make sense for B.C. and ought to be rejected. It’s likely this will be an election issue for many British Columbians, and all parties have a responsibility to put forth a clear position on both pipelines.