Secrecy Around Composition of Oilsands Dilbit Makes Effective Spill Response, Research Impossible: New Study

Knowledge gaps about the behaviour of diluted bitumen when it is spilled into saltwater and lack of information about how to deal with multiple problems that can result from extracting and transporting bitumen from the Alberta oilsands, make it impossible for government or industry to come up with effective policies to deal with a disaster, says a newly published research paper, Oilsands and the Marine Environment.

The study by ecologists from Simon Fraser, Stanford, Oregon State and Northern Arizona universities, who scrutinized more than 9,000 research papers, concludes that officials should collect more information about the environmental effects of bitumen before setting regulations.

Tweet: ‘There isn’t enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean’ #bcpoli“There just isn’t enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean,” said lead author Stephanie Green, a Banting postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University.

“We found almost no research about bitumen’s effects on marine species,” she said.

As controversy continues to swirl around the federal government’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and as president-elect Donald Trump prepares to overhaul energy and environmental regulations and reopen the Keystone XL pipeline application, the lack of credible information highlights policy flaws, the researchers said.

“In this context, policymakers risk confusing the lack of evidence for particular environmental effects with evidence that there is no risk,” Green said.

Out of all the studies examined, only two addressed the toxicity of bitumen in the ocean, said coauthor Thomas Sisk of Northern Arizona University.

“We don’t even know for certain whether this form of petroleum will float or sink during an ocean spill,” he said.

Bitumen is the consistency of peanut butter when extracted from the oilsands and, as it is too thick to flow through a pipe, it is diluted with chemicals or lighter petroleum products such as natural gas concentrate, refined naptha or synthetic crude oil to make it flow. The diluted product is commonly known as dilbit.

However, a major block to coming up with spill responses or figuring out the exact behaviour of dilbit in the ocean is that there are dozens of different formulas and the chemical diluent mix is treated as a trade secret by oil companies.

“A crucial first step in filling this gap is a requirement that the chemical composition of oilsands products be made available for scientific study and impact assessment,” the study recommends.

The paper, which was published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, found that policy flaws include a failure to adequately address carbon emissions or the cumulative effects of multiple projects.

The scientist found there are 15 “pathways” through which the extraction and transportation of oilsands bitumen can negatively affect oceans.

Impacts include problems resulting from a spill, the effect of increased tanker traffic on marine animals and climate change effects such as increasing ocean acidity and temperature and rapid sea-level rise, says the study.

However, there are few scientific studies looking at the effect of two or more of the impacts arising simultaneously.

“Projects should not be considered in isolation and multiple types of impacts need to be considered simultaneously. Everything is connected,” said co-author Wendy Palen of Simon Fraser University.

The gaps in information on multiple stressors are particularly evident on a regional basis for eelgrass and kelp forest systems, the study says.

“Accounting for the effects of multiple projects, concurrently, in scientific assessments and planning processes will lead to more accurate assessments of oil sands contributions to cumulative effects on resources that are in the footprint of multiple industries,” it recommends.

Expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to Burnaby will see the capacity of the pipeline triple to 890,000 barrels a day, compared to the current capacity of 300,000 barrels a day. The expansion will also mean the number of tankers, travelling through the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, will increase to 34 a month from five a month.

The BC Liberal government has set five conditions for approving the pipeline expansion, but is showing every sign that it will get a green light, while the NDP and Green Party oppose it.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver claims his party is the only one to consistently oppose the pipeline.

“You can’t clean up dilbit, so we should ban heavy oil tankers on the coast,” he said categorically.

Image credit: TransCanada

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired five journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 3,300 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Finding the Mother Tree: ecologist Suzanne Simard offers solutions to B.C.’s forest woes

Everything in an ecosystem is connected. A tiny sapling relies on a towering ancient tree, just like a newborn baby depends on its mother. And...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
The Narwhal is coming to Ontario!

We’re on the verge of launching an Ontario bureau. Stay in the know by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.