New Report: Tar Sands Industry Targets America’s Waterways

Approximate routes of tar sands shipments to and on U.S. waterways

In a new report, NRDC examines the impact a suite of new tar sands oil infrastructure proposals could have on America’s coasts and rivers if they were built. Ranging from coast to coast and leaving hardly any major U.S. waterway free from threat, these projects would facilitate more than 1.6 million barrels per day of new production and export capacity for Alberta’s tar sands industry or 60% growth over today’s levels. To move this massive amount of tar sands to refining markets in California, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Gulf Coast, industry will rely on at least 1,005 new tar sands tankers and barges—a 12-fold increase over the few vessels loaded today. In doing so, industry puts iconic landscapes including the Salish Sea, San Francisco Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys, Cape Cod, and the Gulf of Maine at risk from a tar sands oil spill. Meanwhile, our major rivers—the Hudson, Mississippi, and Columbia—could all be impacted by these projects and their tankers and barges. Highly endangered marine species like Washington’s Killer Whales and the Gulf of Maine’s North Atlantic right whales, billion dollar regional fisheries, and the critical coastal tourism industry could all be devastated in the event of a spill.

For these reasons, NRDC has joined seven other organizations with members across the country to call on our decision-makers to stop this dangerous tar sands tanker threat from ever coming to U.S. waters. Together, we have collected more than 200,000 signatures demanding action now and we will be taking this call to local, state, and federal lawmakers in the coming months. Meanwhile, in Canada and across the U.S., opposition to these projects grows daily. This is especially true for the first of these projects to be approved—Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion. In British Columbia, where most of this pipeline would be built, opposition from First Nations, cities and towns along its route, and residents on the British Columbian coastline is leading to a massive mobilization to stop the pipeline from ever being built.

Examining the Threats Posed by Tar Sands Tankers and Barges

There are many reasons that this latest export scheme by the tar sands industry should cause concern. For communities located on America’s major rivers and along its coastlines, the risk of a tar sands oil spill and its aftermath pose a real and palpable threat. Globally, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions driven by these projects is substantial and would be expected to last for decades to come due to the unique production timelines for tar sands projects. Nationally, the economic impacts to our fishing industries and our coastal tourism industries in the event of a spill could be locally and regionally catastrophic due to the areas expected to be traversed by these tar sands tankers and barges.

NRDC’s latest report focuses attention on these four proposed projects and existing infrastructure located along the Mississippi River.

Risk of Sinking Oil and Irreparable Spills

A tar sands oil spill is not your typical oil spill. As we witnessed in the aftermath of 2010’s tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River, clean up of tar sands from water is a messy, time-consuming, and extraordinarily expensive operation. There, spill response and mediation were estimated to have exceeded $1.2 billion and took more than five year to “complete.” Today, miles of the river remain contaminated by lingering tar sands residues that cannot be safely removed without further damaging the river’s health.

In early 2016, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) explored the characteristics of tar sands oil in its more common form—diluted bitumen—and concluded that the experience in the Kalamazoo River was to be expected. According to the NAS, tar sands oil has unique physical characteristics that cause it to begin sinking soon after it is spilled into water. In addition, these characteristics lead to its long-term persistence in the environment (instead of biodegrading as other oils often do) and its adhesion to everything it touches. This makes tar sands nearly impossible to clean up, a fact reiterated by the NAS when it concluded that our spill responders currently lack the technology and techniques for adequately responding to a spill of tar sands oil into water.

Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill clean up. Photo courtesy of US EPA.
Credit: Photo courtesy of US EPA

Accelerating Climate Change

Tar sands oil is also one of the world’s dirtiest oils. From production to transport to refining to consumption, it is a substance that creates major environmental harms. For our shared global climate, this is particularly true, as many of the tar sands oils produced in Alberta rank among the world’s most carbon intensive. This is primarily due to the huge amount of energy that must be consumed just to separate the bitumen (the crude oil portion of tar sands) from the sand and other minerals that it is mixed with. The emissions associated with the projects examined in NRDC’s latest report are estimated to total 362 million metric tons annually, a staggering amount for four pieces of infrastructure that is equivalent to the annual emissions of 105 coal-fired power plants. What’s worse, once this oil enters production, it is essentially locked in to the global energy mix for up to 50 years—a reality that means its emissions will create a growing barrier to climate change mitigation as the world looks to accelerate cuts to human-generated greenhouse gases.

Harm to America’s Coastal Resources and Communities

From fisheries to endangered species to tourism revenue, the tar sands tanker and barge numbers and routes analyzed in NRDC’s latest report could cause major economic and ecological harm to some of America’s best known and most cherished resources. Commercial fisheries valued at more than $3.5 billion annually would be traversed by these tankers and barges. Economies heavily dependent on visitors like Maine’s Acadia National Park, Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, and the Florida Keys in the East and the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and San Francisco Bay in the West all lie in the potential pathways of these tar vessels.  Meanwhile, Washington’s endangered southern resident Killer Whales, Maine’s endangered North Atlantic right whales, sensitive corals protecting Florida’s mainland from increased flooding, and many of the Pacific Northwest’s most important salmon runs are all put at risk from these tar sands ships. In the event of an accident and spill at virtually any moment during these vessel’s journeys from being loaded to being unloaded, the risks posed by tar sands oil spilled into these waters could spell economic and ecological devastation.

Photo courtesy of Mike Charest.

The scale of the tar sands tanker threat requires immediate action. The best available science says that we are far from prepared to respond effectively to a waterborne tar sands oil spill. Because of this risk, NRDC urges government at all levels—local, state, and federal agencies responsible for planning and executing spill responses—to take preventive action to protect the environment, public safety, and our coastal communities. In the meantime, we must continue to make progress in decreasing demand for tar sands oil—and fossil fuels in general—progress that will lead to sustainable job growth, carbon neutral economies, and a climate safe future.