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.
Gateway to disaster?
In 2011 Canadian oil production reached 2.9 million barrels a day and by 2020 that number is expected to reach 4.2 million. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway alone would transport 525,000 barrels of dilbit daily, in addition to 193,000 barrels of imported condensate that would flow through a second pipe alongside leading back to the tar sands in Alberta.
“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.”
In testimony to the Joint Review Panel assessing Northern Gateway back in September 2012 in Edmonton, Enbridge spill expert and economist Jack Ruitenbeek reported that the probability of a tanker, pipeline rupture or terminal spill—of any size, large or small—across the pipeline’s 50-year lifetime was 93 percent. The National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s Joint Review Panel that is currently assessing the environmental effects of Northern Gateway will reach their decision on the pipeline by the end of 2013.
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 outrageous.”