It seems there's dilbit and there's dilbit and nobody, including the federal and Alberta governments, Big Oil and the pipeline companies really knows much about it.
Diluted bitumen, the tar sands slurry that Harper, the Alberta government and Big Fossil are in an insane rush to transport across British Columbia and into supertankers, is something of an enigma.
An article today in Scientific American explores how cagey the bitumen boosters can be about their pet product and why they shouldn't be trusted.
“I think it's fair to say, there’s been some purposeful denial that
the bitumen is really something different,” says Steve Hamilton, an
aquatic ecologist at Michigan State University who worked with the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Enbridge in 2010 to remediate a
diluted bitumen spill in Michigan—work that is still ongoing. “The
science has not informed this cleanup very well. There’s a pressing need
Bitumen is a thick hydrocarbon, the “tar” in Alberta's tar sands,
the third largest deposit of hydrocarbons in the world. To flow through
a pipeline, the tarlike bitumen is diluted with gas condensates or
synthetic oils known as diluents. This mixture of bitumen and dilmulation varies widely and is not publicly released.
Finding out what exactly is included under the umbrella term dilbit
is an important first step in understanding this unconventional form of
oil. “It’s not cast in stone exactly what dilbit is,” says Kenneth Lee,
head of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Center for Offshore Oil and
Gas Energy Research in Nova Scotia. “The fate and behavior of the
product—the character of the product when it's spilled in the water—will
depend on what the final formulation is,” Lee says. Next comes figuring
out how dilbit behaves when it is spilled. “We have to understand the
physical behavior of the oil before we can design the optimal cleanup
technologies,” he adds.
On Sunday, July 25, 2010, one of Enbridge’s pipelines in the U.S.
sprung a leak near Marshall, Mich. By the time the spill was contained
some three days later, some 20,000 barrels of diluted bitumen had leaked
from the pipe and entered a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. At the
time the river was in a flood stage, which slowed the oil’s transport
downstream. Even then the oil contaminated a 65-kilometer-long stretch
of river, overtopped several dams and deposited itself onto the
vegetation in the flood plain. The contaminated flora had to be stripped
away and taken to landfills, after detergents and water
sprays wouldn’t budge the stuff. Ditto with surface soils; once
spilled, the dilbit became heavier and thicker as the diluting component
of the mix evaporated into the air. “When it loses the diluent it turns
back to its original tarry nature and it sticks to things. It's next to
impossible to get off,” Michigan State's Hamilton says.
Then there was the oil that became submerged
in river sediments. “One of the big questions when we're talking about
dilbit is, does it float or does it sink?” DFO’s Lee says. “If you talk
to Enbridge or some of the people in industry, they say, ‘well, it
floats.’ You look at what happened in the Kalamazoo river, and it sank.”
So, if it's "next to impossible to get off" the shallow bed of the Kalamazoo River, just how easy will it be to clean up from the rocky sea bed 600-feet down? Enbridge says it floats and it just might for a little while until the dilutents evaporate out. And then it heads straight for the bottom.
The [Kalamazoo River] ecosystem has bounced back quite well, however. Along the river,
fish, aquatic insects, birds or mammals appear healthy, Hamilton
reports. “You have to remember that $800,000 and thousands of workers
stripped every visible patch of oil off the landscape. So if it were in
an environment where you couldn't do that, then it wouldn't be bouncing
back like it is now,” he notes. “I can't imagine what sort of
environment that might be but it could be anywhere along the proposed
route of the [Northern Gateway] Pipeline where you've got rugged terrain
or rivers or steep gradients, or it could be in the port where it goes
into deep bays. It would be next to impossible to clean up.”
Worse yet, there's precious little that's actually known about dilbit, especially its persistence and toxicity.
And, even after this costly lesson, he points out that no one knows what causes the oil to sink, nor does anyone know its ecological cost, toxicity, environmental persistence
or whether there are things that can be done to accelerate its
biodegradation. “I believe that the world would have been better off if
we had done some more focused directed research during the last couple
years to ask these questions and get some answers,” Hamilton says.
As for Enbridge's touted record of pipeline safety and assurances the Northern Gateway will be safe, it just ain't so.
“If we look at the historical record, it's clear that Canada has never
had a system of pipelines that are leakproof or spill-proof,” says Sean
Kheraj, a historian at York University in Toronto. Kheraj points to the
telling statistic that in 2010 Alberta’s pipeline network alone spilled
3.4 million liters of liquid hydrocarbon product (which is the fancy
name for oil and gas products). “We can anticipate historically that
there will likely be spills along any new pipeline network, whether it’s
Keystone XL or Northern Gateway.”
But if the proposed pipeline spills in British Columbia, aquatic
ecosystems along its path will be most at risk. “Once you get over the
[Continental] Divide virtually every stream that would be crossed turns
into a salmon-bearing stream. There are no streams that are of trivial
significance from an ecosystem context,” says Mark Boyce, a fisheries
and wildlife biologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “At the
end, at the far reaches of these pipelines are the most pristine marine
environments on the planet, and to go mucking that up is just