To no one’s surprise, the provincial government of British Columbia has signed off on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oilsands pipeline and supertanker project in the Salish Sea.
The announcement confirmed that Premier Christy Clark’s posturing with her “five conditions” strategy over the past four-and-a-half years has essentially been political kabuki theatre. The cynical, albeit clever, five-conditions gambit allowed Clark to mask her B.C. Liberal government’s support for Trans Mountain, via a combination of faux fence-sitting and feel-good “standing up for British Columbians” rhetoric, at least until the federal Liberal government had taken the brunt of the criticism for approving the project.
Yet, given the deliberate open-endedness and vagueness of Clark’s demands, it is difficult to believe that anyone actually bought into the five-conditions charade. From the start, it was obvious the thresholds for satisfying those requirements would either be conveniently fungible or realistically unattainable. The following examination of what might be the most far-fetched of the five conditions serves to illustrate this point.
When the premier first asserted that “world-leading marine oil-spill response, prevention and recovery” was a linchpin of her five conditions, many felt it was simply empty pandering to the legitimate concerns of British Columbians, as the phrase “world-leading oil-spill response, prevention and recovery” is a meaningless platitude.
As the Raincoast Conservation Foundation has stressed repeatedly, there is no such thing as world-leading or world-class oil-spill response, prevention and recovery. The existing yardstick is wholly inadequate, as estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment are 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill, at best.
As we have learned from previous spills, no response is possible in rough weather, high seas and dangerous conditions. It’s important to note that these conditions often precede, or follow, oil spills. Pumping and skimming recovery options are ineffective in more than one knot of tide or in waves and choppy waters.
In rough conditions or offshore spills, response is limited to the use of dispersants, as containment is not an option. Dispersants have proven to be largely unsuccessful on water-in-oil emulsions and on oil that has weathered, and will not likely be successful on diluted bitumen. Furthermore, reliable knowledge regarding the extent of dispersant toxicity is lacking.
The Canadian Coast Guard has also identified the uncertainty around the effectiveness of spill response for the diluted bitumen that Kinder Morgan plans to transport from Alberta’s oilsands. In its submission to the joint review panel assessing the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, the Coast Guard stated it was “not aware of a scientific consensus regarding how these products will behave when introduced into the marine environment or the effects over time of the products being in the water. The Canadian Coast Guard, therefore, is uncertain whether or not traditional oil-spill recovery methods would be effective.”
The Coast Guard’s fear that diluted bitumen could submerge or sink has been reinforced by top chemical scientists in a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study. (That study was capriciously refused to be introduced as evidence for the Trans Mountain federal review by the National Energy Board.)
But this would not be the only impact of a diluted bitumen spill. If a slick hits the water, it would immediately release dangerous components that are acutely toxic to fish and animals. Currently, no technology can recover those volatile diluents.
The bottom line on the B.C. coast, as has been shown elsewhere, is that arriving on the scene within the NEB-mandated 36 hours does not necessarily translate into effective cleanup of an oil spill.
With grossly overstated oil-spill response capabilities revealed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was evident that improvements to oil-spill technology have been negligible. Responders in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill indicated that cleanup technology was no further ahead than in the previous 15 years. Responders in the Deepwater Horizon spill claimed that cleanup technologies were essentially the same as in the Exxon Valdez spill.
Thus, despite some minor improvements, oil-spill recovery remains largely unchanged over the past three decades. Notably, the spill response in these situations was nothing like what had been promised by the oil companies.
Another reality of so-called world-class response and prevention is the fact that human failures account for up to 80 per cent of the world’s oil spills. State-of-the-art navigation does not compensate for human error. Major oil spills show that despite assurances of low risk and advanced technology, poor decisions still lead to major incidents. Groundings, collisions, equipment failures and explosions are all cited as causes for accidents, but these are consequences, not causes. Root causes of incidents are more insidious, with human error and miscommunication foremost among them.
Chris Genovali is executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.