A scientist for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans says Enbridge has not studied the effects of a spill from diluted oilsands bitumen, and has instead submitted its response plan based on conventional crude.
Following its spill response proposal for the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge has claimed the diluted bitumen and conventional crude would react the same way if spilled. But documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information reveal a different perspective from Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kenneth Lee, the head of the department’s Offshore Oil Gas and Energy Research.
“The Northern Gateway pipeline proposal lacks key information on the chemical composition of the reference oils used in the hypothetical spill models,” Lee wrote in a December 2011 research proposal.
Lee sought approval to conduct a series of studies through to 2015, when final tests on the “toxic effects of reference oils to marine species” would be completed. Although there has been no confirmation about a federal response to Lee’s proposal, the scientist’s own deadline would greatly surpass the late 2013 deadline in front of the Northern Gateway review panel, which starts the questioning phase of its final hearings on September 4, 2012.
Lee said he was “uncertain” whether traditional methods to contain an oil spill and clear contaminated water would be effective if deployed in a Northern Gateway spill.
Despite Lee’s proposal, there appears to be no consensus in the research community whether diluted bitumen behaves differently in water than conventional crude oil once it is spilled.
Some environmental activist groups, however, have suggested the difference is clear.
“First, the lighter condensate evaporates, causing a toxic plume that’s extremely dangerous to people and animals,” argues Adam Scott, Environmental Defence’s green energy program manager, in a statement on its website about the diluted oilsands bitumen.
“This leaves behind a thick tar that is heavier than water – so heavy in fact that it sinks, coating the entire river or ocean bottom with oily goo," Scott adds. "This is a big problem. Because the way oil spills, like BP’s in the Gulf of Mexico or the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, are cleaned up is with booms and skimmers....on the surface.”