A recent pipeline leak sent 475,000 litres of oil into Alberta’s Red Deer River. It could have been worse—nothing was being pumped at the time. The company, Plains Midstream, claims the light sour crude may smell bad but poses no risk to humans.
It happened as crews were cleaning a larger spill from last year at another of the company’s pipelines. That one dumped 4.5 million litres of oil into the surrounding forest and wetlands. The recent Red Deer River spill was also the site of a leak in 2008. Industry figures show that more than 3.4 million litres of fossil fuels have been accidentally released from pipelines every year in Alberta since 2006. One litre of spilled oil can contaminate a million litres of groundwater.
Enbridge, the company that wants to build a dual pipeline from the tar sands to the B.C. coast, has had more than 800 leaks and spills on its pipelines since 1999, sending close to 27 million litres of oil into the environment. That included a 2010 spill in Michigan that dumped 3.8 million litres of diluted tar sands bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. Cleanup costs for that are already $765 million, and the river is still contaminated.
Of course, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which will carry heavy bitumen 1,200 kilometres one way and Middle Eastern condensate the other way across close to 1,000 streams and rivers, will be different, we are assured: world-class safety standards, safety control valves, 24/7 monitoring, emergency responders ... Where have these world-class standards been hiding until now?
Enbridge only carries enough insurance to cover $575 million in damages, far less than incurred by the Kalamazoo spill. Who pays the rest if a spill happens after the company and its Chinese state-owned backers get their way in Northern B.C.?
Bitumen is riskier than regular oil or gas. It’s heavier and sinks in water, making cleanup difficult with longer-lasting negative environmental impacts. But, thanks to changes brought in under the federal government’s Bill C-38, we’ll no longer have to think about potential damage to the waterways and land along the pipeline route, unless they’re home to “fish that are part of a commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal fisheries.”
These are just issues with spills. Even the other possible catastrophic environmental impacts of Northern Gateway—such as accidents involving more than 200 supertankers a year carrying the bitumen through the narrow and hazardous Douglas Channel and across the Pacific and down the coast to China and California for refining—pale in comparison to the larger issue: rapid exploitation of fossil fuel deposits and the associated impacts of climate change, pollution and economic short-sightedness.
The goal of our government and industry leaders appears to be to dig up as much oil as possible, as quickly as possible, and sell it overseas, and damn the economic and environmental consequences. If that means selling entire tar sands operations and the bitumen to companies owned by a government known for human rights abuses and environmental destruction; if it means polluting water and putting people’s health at risk; if it means killing birds, caribou and wolves; if it means putting our manufacturing industry at risk and not joining the green-energy economy, all for the sake of a few short-term and even fewer long-term jobs, who cares? There’s a quick buck to be made. And the economy will appear to chug along until the next election and maybe the one after that. And that’s surely enough time to dismantle many of the laws, policies and institutions that have made Canada the great country it is.
Whether or not we smarten up and start switching to cleaner energy, we’re going to need oil for some time. Rather than rushing headlong into this and putting our environment, health and economy at risk, it would make more sense to step back, develop a national energy plan, and figure out how we can use this valuable and diminishing resource efficiently and in a way that provides long-term benefits for all Canadians rather than a few industrialists and China’s totalitarian government. We also need to start monitoring the long-term impacts of the never-ending spills from leaky pipelines.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.