B.C. Government Rejects Tar Sands Pipeline - Raising Safety Questions

One of the most significant arguments in favor of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was shattered by a major announcement from the British Columbia government formally rejecting the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline.   This announcement puts to rest the claim that tar sands development is inevitable.  But the B.C. government’s detailed submittal to federal government decision-makers was also noteworthy in recognizing there is growing evidence that diluted bitumen could pose additional risks to water and is more difficult to clean up.  The B.C. government decision has ramifications for the decision about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  First, the decision confirms that Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be a lead determinant to tar sands growth resulting in a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Second, the decision confirms, at a minimum, there is no scientific evidence that diluted bitumen acts the same as conventional oil when it hits water and that serious study of the implications of tar sands oil spills is required before approving new tar sands pipelines.  In light of British Columbia’s rejection, the U.S. State Department should revisit its previous findings that the Keystone XL poses no risks to water or climate which were based on faulty assumptions about the behavior of tar sands oil and about the role that Keystone XL will play as the major driver of tar sands strip-mining and drilling. 

B.C. decision shows Keystone XL will drive tar sands growth

Proponents of Keystone XL often claim that tar sands development is inevitable pointing to other pipeline projects or rail as evidence that a rejection of Keystone XL would not impact tar sands production.  But the B.C. government has now officially opposed the largest pipeline proposal in Canada putting that project in deep peril.  Already, a staggering 60 percent of British Columbians are opposed to the project.  Before this recent decision, financial analysts gave low odds for approval of this pipeline or other western tar sands pipelines moving forward.  The opposition comes from over 100 First Nations to the project who have constitutional rights enabling them to delay or stop the pipeline has also led to skepticism the project would proceed.

Arguments that tar sands development and transport will continue to grow unimpeded by other means such as rail or by pipelines to Canada’s east coast are equally debunked.  With respect to rail, my colleague Anthony Swift has definitively outlined how the potential for rail to move vast quantities of tar sands is not supported by the data.  This has already been backed up by an investigation by Reuters.

Tar sands pipeline projects taking tar sands oil to Canada’s east coast also face considerable hurdles.  For example, TransCanada’s Energy East proposal spans six provinces and touches over 50 First Nations communities.  It will require a long and complex regulatory and siting process.  Because it will require extensive new construction in Quebec – a province that is historically against tar sands pipelines and development – it will face major hurdles from the public and the government. 

Indeed, because the tar sands industry can’t get its product out through Canada, it is relying heavily on Keystone XL to enable tar sands growth. Just recently, Canadian bank RBC acknowledged that as much as a third of planning oil sands growth would be put on the back burner if Keystone XL were rejected.  The link between pipelines and production – and the significant role of Keystone XL – is acknowledged widely within industry circles.  But the U.S. State Department continues to wrongly conclude tar sands development is inevitable with or without the Keystone XL pipeline.

B.C. government says there are safety problems with tar sands diluted bitumen

The B.C. government’s lengthy submittal outlining its opposition to the Northern Gateway project specifically recognized that diluted bitumen (tar sands mixed with certain chemicals) is a very different substance from conventional oil and that its behavior in water is not fully understood.  They stated “the challenge of responding to a spill is complicated by the potential for dilbit to sink.”  The B.C. government pointed specifically to the tar sands spill in Kalamazoo Michigan. While the B.C. government did not render a final determination on this matter, they stated that Enbridge’s claims that dilbit floats has been undermined by other evidence and there is not a “full understanding of the behaviors of spilled dilbit” and that further research is warranted.

Indeed, the pipeline will cross over 700 pristine rivers and streams.  NRDC and a coalition of Canadian partners sounded the alarm on the potential risks of transporting diluted bitumen in 2011. There are unique challenges and risks associated with transporting diluted bitumen compared to conventional oil. When tar sands pipelines spill, the spills are especially hazardous due to the explosive properties of diluted bitumen and the concentration of toxins found in bitumen, like benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Further, cleaning up a bitumen spill is very challenging using conventional cleanup technologies like booms and skimmers because heavy bitumen can sink in water. And current pipeline safety regulations in Canada or the United States do not address the unique challenges associated with shipping diluted bitumen.

Opposition to tar sands pipelines grows

While the B.C. government has formally registered its opposition, the process to consider the pipeline continues.  A federal panel has still yet to hear final argumenst and present a report.  While the Canadian federal government could still push for approval of the pipeline, the official opposition from a state through which the pipeline runs will make it more challenging for federal decision-makers.   Regardless, the announcement from the B.C. government has likely put another nail in the coffin for this project.

The B.C. decision presents us with an opportunity to remember that tar sands poses unique and significant impacts to water and climate.  It confirms that Keystone XL would be a linchpin for tar sands growth leading to greater climate impacts.  And it confirms that we should focus on the range of problems that come from spills from tar sands pipelines  which poses much greater risks to the environment, wildlife, and public health.   In the end, it confirms there are significant adverse risks from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and that it is not in our national interest.

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