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August 7, 2012

In Canada: Fighting over oil money

The Canadian Charger

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While Alberta Premier Alison Redford and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark quibble over their province's fair share of the pie from Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, a large part of the environment of the province of British Columbia is facing untold risks.

Ms. Clark repeated her vow that she would scuttle the $6-billion project – which would take heavy oil from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., and then on to Asia – if her province does not get its "fair share" of revenues for shouldering the environmental risk. And Ms. Redford repeated her refrain that Ms. Clark's position is one that would "fundamentally change" Canada’s Confederation.

“We will not share royalties and I see nothing else proposed and would not be prepared to consider anything else at this time," Ms. Redford said.

"It's not how Canada has worked. It's not how Canada has succeeded, and I'm disappointed to hear the comments."

Ms. Clark has not defined "fair share" in dollars, but has noted that while British Columbia will see little in return for the risk it is taking, "the federal government and Alberta are going to see billions in other tax revenue."

Environmental groups, fishermen, municipalities and aboriginal communities oppose the pipeline for a variety of compelling reasons. 

Environmentalists say the increased extraction of oil from the oilsands that the pipeline would bring will pollute the air and nearby lakes, rivers and watersheds, destroy wildlife habitats, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and threaten the health of surrounding communities.

They and some of the communities that would be affected by the pipelines, which will run through the Mackenzie, Fraser and Skeena watersheds, are also concerned about the possibility of a large oil spill or leak. And research studies indicate that an oil spill is a very real possibility.

According to the Pembina Institute, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Living Oceans Society, which issued a joint report on the impact of the proposed pipeline in November 2011, “diluted bitumen may weaken pipelines at a faster rate than conventional oil due to its acidic, sulphuric, abrasive and viscous nature."

Environmental groups and aboriginal leaders also claim that if a spill were to occur, it would be "especially hazardous due to the explosive properties of diluted bitumen and the concentration of toxins."

Considering the Enbridge oilsands pipeline would carry 700,000 barrels of petroleum products each day, across a landscape known for avalanches and landslides, while crossing 1,000 rivers and streams in B.C., the consequences of any leak or rupture could be catastrophic.

Should a pipeline spill occur in a remote area, which much of the proposed pipeline route is, detection and cleanup would be difficult, especially in winter, the environmentalists worry.

From Kitimat, oil tankers transport the bitumen though 185 km of inner coastal waters, a route that the environmentalists claim poses navigational challenges.

That route also passes through the Great Bear Rainforest, which the federal and B.C. governments have pledged will be a protected area.

Environmentalists maintain that bitumen is heavier and more difficult to clean up from waterways. Extracting oil from oilsands is a relatively new technology, and there are no existing response mechanisms that can clean up that kind of spill, argued Karen Wristen, with the Living Oceans Society in B.C.

"There's nothing Ottawa can do in the case of an oil spill, there's nothing anyone can do," she said.

Unlike conventional crude spills — where the oil spreads out across the surface of the ocean — the heavier chemical compounds in oil from the sands sinks to the bottom where it can persist and affect wildlife, she said.

"[In the case of a surface spill], they put a (containment) boom around it to keep it in place, and then they try to sop it up or suck it up," she said. "If it's not going to stay on the surface, you can't use that technology."

Enbridge officials don't consider that an issue. The company says that spilled bitumen does float initially, and in that scenario it would promptly dispatch a response team with equipment to contain "the direct effects of a spill."

"Northern Gateway acknowledges that, in certain conditions, some fraction of the oil may become entrained in the water column, submerge, or sink in both freshwater and marine environments," the company's spokesperson Todd Nogier said in an email.

"This is the case irrespective of whether the oil is dilbit, synthetic crude or conventional crude oil."

The Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit organization in Washington state, said the difficulties of removing diluted bitumen was apparent during a pipeline spill in Michigan two years ago.

Executive director Carl Weimer said response crews used various techniques to trap what was on the surface of the river, and disposed of vegetation that was contaminated with oil.

They also stirred the river bed so the oil that had sunk to the bottom would float back up. But not all of the crude could be captured.

"That surprised people who thought they were ready to clean up," Mr.Weimer said. "Over years, different microbes will break (oil) down, but it does a lot of harm in the meantime."

The scathing report was followed by Enbridge's announcement last week that it will invest another $500 million in safety improvements to the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The new measures include increasing the thickness of the pipe walls at major river crossings, increasing the number of remotely-operated shut-off valves, and stepping up the number of inspections.

Mr. Weimer said thicker walls can absorb more impact, while more shut-off valves can cut off a potential spill earlier.

However, without a rigorous monitoring system, the safety measures will be inconsequential, he said.

"If you don't have a leak detection system that's going to find a leak within a few hours, the thick pipes and the valves haven't done you any good," he said.

Meanwhile, B.C.'s Liberal government outlined their five "minimum requirements" for the pipeline project. The conditions included: completion of the environmental review process, First Nations accommodation, improved marine and land spill response and benefit-sharing because B.C.'s taking the majority of the risk.

So on the one hand, Ms. Clark's government is concerned about environmental protection but on the other hand she's willing to live with that risk for the right price.

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