Chances are, you've heard some of the debate surrounding the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. These two parallel pipelines would span 1,177 km, carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and blended bituman from Alberta to BC each day. The project poses disasters far beyond what current technology is equipped to deal with. Learn about risks associated with the Enbridge pipeline, and how can you can ensure your voice is heard.
The crude oil wealth that lies deep in Canada’s soil, mostly in Alberta, has been well documented. It is estimated that 167 billion out of 173 billion barrels are found as a mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen. Extracting what some consider the dirtiest oils in the world requires complex operations that spew three times as much carbon dioxide into the air as regular oil.
A pipeline runs through it?
Getting this Alberta oil to global markets requires transportation to ports where it can be shipped. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (ENGP) is a system of two parallel pipelines spanning 731 miles (1,177 km) from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, BC.
The eastbound pipeline would transport natural gas condensate (193,000 barrels daily) to dilute tar sands, while the westbound pipeline would transport approximately 525,000 barrels per day of oil and blended bitumen, which, once in Kitimat, will be ready for export primarily to Asia via about 225 tankers a year.
Risks to the land
The pipelines will cross treacherous terrain, including the Coast Mountains range, an area with heavy precipitation, avalanches, and landslides. The proposed trajectory crosses rivers and streams, adding to existing challenges to the ecosystem, such as forestry, hydro projects, and climate change.
While it is difficult to estimate the full impact of a pipeline spill (its effects will extend beyond the area where it occurs), a look at previous major accidents becomes relevant.
In July of 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the US ruptured, spilling more than 800,000 gallons into and near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Most of the bitumen sank below the surface, and is still there today.
Risks to the people
The prospect of a pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest (see sidebar) and proposed tanker traffic in the adjacent waters have created political discord, being met with fierce opposition from the local First Nations and environmental groups.
According to a groundbreaking study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Fisheries Centre, ocean-based industries in the area are critical to the regional economy and well-being of communities, providing direct and related employment to 30 percent of the population.
“Our study was purely economic,” says lead author, Rashid Sumaila, director and professor at the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at UBC. “We assessed strictly the impact of a spill in open water along the tankers’ shipping routes, but did not account for the non-market values, which are inestimable, such as cultural and spiritual, environmental, and ecological.”
The economic consequences of a medium spill (63,000 barrels) would far outweigh the economic benefits of the pipeline, the study concluded, even before considering the cleanup costs, which are estimated to be at $2.4 billion for a medium spill.
Risks at sea
To reach the open waters of the Pacific, tankers will have to navigate the 180 mile (290 km) route from Kitimat through the Douglas Channel, following a northern route toward Asian markets, or southward to the US.
The tankers, categorized as very large crude carriers (VLCC), are more than 1,100 ft (335 m) long (greater than the length of three football fields) and able to transport up to 2.2 million barrels of diluted bitumen.
The Hecate Strait, the open water area between the BC coast near Kitimat and Haida Gwaii, is one of the most treacherous waters to navigate—considered the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world, according to Environment Canada. “The VLCC tankers will have to make many sharp turns in the channel and at the entrance,” says Karen Wristen, executive director at Living Oceans.
Scarce information about diluted bitumen and the longer time to reach the area complicates recovery in case of a spill. “We don’t know much about bitumen to assess all risks,” says Sumaila, whose study conclusions were based on past spills of crude oil.
“BC cannot deal with a bitumen spill,” warns Wristen. Research has yet to fill the gaps. “Once in fresh and brackish water, diluted bitumen will likely sink below the surface, making it impossible to clean up,” she explains. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, chronic exposure to subsurface oil continued to affect wildlife two decades after the event.
“We do not have the technology to deal with large or medium spills in the waters the tankers will be traversing,” says Wristen.
It is estimated that less than 10 percent of a spill is ever recovered. “And we do not know whether spilled bitumen will degrade at all the way conventional oils do,” she adds.
Heavy oils form tar balls that stay on the bottom of the ocean and wash up on shores for decades after a spill. Because they sink, dense oils remain in the environment longer, causing chronic exposure; they tend to be sticky and coat animals’ fur and feathers.
“A real concern,” Wristen says, “is the ballast water and pollution of a narrow, deep fjord such as the one to Kitimat. Ships have to exchange their ballast water before entering confined waters, yet the area where these exchanges would take place can be subject to incredible storms.”
“The ship vessel’s master has to guarantee the safety of his shipping crew first of all, so there would be no exchange if that puts the crew at risk,” explains Wristen. “From an enforcement point of view, this is not an ideal situation for ballast water or any other standards that apply to tankers.”
Risks unseen—and unaddressed
A spill in the area would be catastrophic, but Ian McAllister, executive director of Pacific Wild, a BC-based wildlife conservation organization, also fears the “chronic and cumulative effect the entire industry will have on the coast.”
“These are quiet waters where whales and other species can communicate underwater without having to compete with ship traffic. If the pipeline is built, there will be oil and gas tankers on a daily basis, and tether tugs as well, adding to the high acoustic pollution,” says McAllister. Yet acoustic pollution was never considered by Enbridge.
“We are trying to determine appropriate levels of noise that will accommodate acoustically sensitive species using a large hydrophone network, but that information was not even entertained during the [National Energy Board] joint review panel hearing,” McAllister says.
Some of the tanker routes will cut right through critical whale migration and feeding habitat. In 2014, the Canadian government downgraded the status of the Northern Pacific humpback whale population from “threatened” to “species of special concern”—which means there would no longer be a need to protect the whale’s habitat.
McAllister believes there is no safe acoustic threshold when it comes to a tanker route. “There is unbridled expansion once a port is built. We cannot expect anything different to happen here,” he says.
Another risk, even in the absence of a major spill, is the “chronic spillage that occurs in most oil ports, which can lead to chronic effects, killing off wildlife in the port area,” says Wristen. The toxic and carcinogenic compounds in the oil residue have been shown to affect marine creatures, impacting long-term survival of entire populations.
“The way we extract fossil fuel makes it look easy, and then people are less motivated to try harder. We need to diversify and look for sustainable alternatives,” says Sumaila.
McAllister agrees: “Leave this finite resource in the ground, and use domestically only while transitioning toward a sustainable, renewable energy future.”
The Great Bear Rainforest
The largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest in the world, the Great Bear Rainforest is located on BC’s north coast.
- It spreads over 25,000 square miles (64,000 square kilometres/6.4 million hectares).
- It opens into a cold-water sea that shelters many threatened or endangered marine mammals such as blue, fin, sei, grey, humpback, and orca whales.
- It encompasses the traditional territory of 12 First Nations.
- It is home to 1,000-year-old cedar trees, grizzly bears, black bears, and the iconic Kermode or spirit bear, a white genetic variation of the black bear, unique in the world.
- Its rivers and streams are the destination for five types of Pacific salmon returning to spawn, feeding bears, wolves, birds, and trees.
- It contains one-quarter of all the remaining rainforests in the world.
- It survived an intense clear-cut logging campaign that ended in 1999.
- It is currently 33 percent protected, but at least 70 percent must be under protection, according to environmental group Sierra Club, in order to achieve low ecological risk.
What you can do to help
- Intense economic development that places profits before preserving unique ecosystems needs to be addressed.
- Find out who is running for federal office in your area and make yourself familiar with their platform.
- “Contact your MLA and make sure the provincial government knows you expect them to stick to the five conditions mentioned by BC’s Premier Clark in the refusal of the project, a First Nations consent first of all,” says Wristen.
- Sign petitions initiated by environmental groups such as Sierra Club, Living Oceans, and Pacific Wild that aim to protect the Great Bear region and the coast.
By the numbers
- 36,000: the number of kilometres (22, 369 miles) along British Columbia’s shorelines
- 10: the percentage of Canada’s coastline that is in BC
- 6,500: the number of islands, some populated, and many more wild and untouched along the coast of BC, that are all part of a unique landscape
- 28: the total percentage of BC coastline that is protected
- 3: the percentage of Canada’s Pacific waters that are protected
Did you know
After the Exxon Valdez spill, aside from environmental and economic consequences, local communities experienced a 90 percent increase in anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression; increased substance abuse and violence; and lower measures of health status.