David Suzuki: The catastrophic effects of oil pipeline spills

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      A recent pipeline leak sent 475,000 litres of oil into Alberta’s Red Deer River. It could have been worse; nothing was being pumped at the time. The company, Plains Midstream, claims the light sour crude may smell bad but poses no risk to humans!

      It happened as crews were cleaning a larger spill from last year at another of the company’s pipelines. That one dumped 4.5 million litres of oil into the surrounding forest and wetlands. The recent Red Deer River spill was also the site of a leak in 2008. Industry figures show that more than 3.4 million litres of fossil fuels have been accidentally released from pipelines every year in Alberta since 2006. One litre of spilled oil can contaminate a million litres of groundwater.

      Enbridge, the company that wants to build a dual pipeline from the tar sands to the B.C. coast, has had more than 800 leaks and spills on its pipelines since 1999, sending close to 27 million litres of oil into the environment. That included a 2010 spill in Michigan that dumped 3.8 million litres of diluted tar sands bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. Cleanup costs for that are already $765 million, and the river is still contaminated.

      Of course, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which will carry heavy bitumen 1,200 kilometres one way and Middle Eastern condensate the other way across close to 1,000 streams and rivers, will be different, we are assured: world-class safety standards, safety control valves, 24/7 monitoring, emergency responders… Where have these world-class standards been hiding until now?

      Enbridge only carries enough insurance to cover $575 million in damages, far less than incurred by the Kalamazoo spill. Who pays the rest if a spill happens after the company and its Chinese state-owned backers get their way in Northern B.C.?

      Bitumen is riskier than regular oil or gas. It’s heavier and sinks in water, making cleanup difficult with longer-lasting negative environmental impacts. But, thanks to changes brought in under the federal government’s Bill C-38, we’ll no longer have to think about potential damage to the waterways and land along the pipeline route, unless they’re home to “fish that are part of a commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal fisheries.”

      These are just issues with spills. Even the other possible catastrophic environmental impacts of Northern Gateway—such as accidents involving more than 200 supertankers a year carrying the bitumen through the narrow and hazardous Douglas Channel and across the Pacific and down the coast to China and California for refining—pale in comparison to the larger issue: rapid exploitation of fossil fuel deposits and the associated impacts of climate change, pollution, and economic short-sightedness.

      The goal of our government and industry leaders appears to be to dig up as much oil as possible, as quickly as possible, and sell it overseas, and damn the economic and environmental consequences. If that means selling entire tar sands operations and the bitumen to companies owned by a government known for human rights abuses and environmental destruction; if it means polluting water and putting people’s health at risk; if it means killing birds, caribou, and wolves; if it means putting our manufacturing industry at risk and not joining the green-energy economy, all for the sake of a few short-term and even fewer long-term jobs, who cares? There’s a quick buck to be made. And the economy will appear to chug along until the next election and maybe the one after that. And that’s surely enough time to dismantle many of the laws, policies, and institutions that have made Canada the great country it is!

      Whether or not we smarten up and start switching to cleaner energy, we’re going to need oil for some time. Rather than rushing headlong into this and putting our environment, health, and economy at risk, it would make more sense to step back, develop a national energy plan, and figure out how we can use this valuable and diminishing resource efficiently and in a way that provides long-term benefits for all Canadians rather than a few industrialists and China’s totalitarian government. We also need to start monitoring the long-term impacts of the never-ending spills from leaky pipelines.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Kim Collins

      Jun 19, 2012 at 5:18pm

      Another Enbridge pipeline spill happened today:

      "Nearly 1,500 barrels of heavy crude oil have spilled from an Enbridge Inc. facility pumping oil sands product to market, the latest major leak in Alberta.

      The oil spilled from a pumping station on Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline, 24 kilometres south east of Elk Point, Alta., the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board said in a statement...

      The spill comes as crews are still working to clean up two other large leaks in Alberta - one from a Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. well about 200 kilometres from the N.W.T. border, and another from a Plains Midstream Canada pipeline that ruptured beneath the Red Deer River.

      That follows on an increasingly lengthy series of large leaks starting last year, including a spill from another Plains pipeline that was one of the largest in Alberta history."



      Jun 19, 2012 at 6:07pm

      "One litre of spilled oil can contaminate a million litres of groundwater."

      Could you explain this more thoroughly? It seems like it would be highly diluted, almost homeopathic at that point? What would be the actual impact on that million litres of water? Would it be undrinkable?


      Jun 19, 2012 at 9:35pm

      "One litre of oil spilled in the environment can potentially contaminate one million litres of water in lakes, streams or groundwater." ---Canadian Petroleum Products Institute


      For more detailed infomation, call the Institute: 613-232-3709


      Jun 20, 2012 at 10:23am

      How about the Catastrophic effects of economic collapse? We can't turn the West into some National Park Utopia..we'll all starve..suicides in Greece are up 40% last year and they have a pretty pristine untouched environment. Make sure the pipelines are built to stringent specs.


      Jun 20, 2012 at 12:01pm

      Nice try Wilson with the strawman arguement. Nobody is saying turn the country into National Park Utopia. We actually extract a ton of natural gas and oil as it is and make a ton of money doing it. The question is when is enough enough. People are being very greedy trying to make as much as money as they can as quickly as they can. There is such a thing as sustainable natural resources development and that's what the debate is about.

      Kim Collins

      Jun 20, 2012 at 12:57pm

      "Between 1990 and 2005, the Alberta Energy Utilities Board recorded more than 16,000 “releases” by pipelines, of which more than half involved hydrocarbons and roughly 30 per cent were “hydrocarbon liquid,” which would mean oil or distillates.

      Since 2006, Kheraj notes, pipeline ruptures number in the thousands and have spilled the equivalent of at least almost 28 million litres of oil...

      A single litre of spilled oil, the campaign points out, can contaminate a million litres of groundwater.

      So, consider the impact of 28 million litres of spilled oil on water resources – at a time when your Vancouver Sun’s front page headline reports that conservation of water is becoming crucial. Multiply 28 million litres of oil by a million. I get 28 trillion litres of contaminated water."



      Jun 20, 2012 at 4:37pm

      just the fact that they're saying publicly it poses no risk to humans is crystal clear proof that there is a major spin going on here.

      crude oil is a known carcinogen. in oil spill zones, people have contracted respiratory diseases, skin rashes, chemically induced pneumonia, nausea, headaches, seizures, and pregnant women miscarry or pass toxins on to their unborn children.

      these health risks are not just temporary either, they have trans-generational consequences.

      Gentleman Jack

      Jun 20, 2012 at 8:13pm


      So does eco-cultism.
      Pick your poison.
      The only poison nobody should pick is one that says "you cannot pick your poison, you must drink this!!!"