Saskatchewan Heavy Oil Spill Highlights Pipeline Risks

A 66,000 gallon diluted heavy oil spill in Northern Saskatchewan reminds us of the threats major tar sands pipelines like TransCanada's Energy East and Kinder Morgan's TransMountain expansion proposals would pose for North Americas rivers, streams, and coast lines.
The circled area shows an approximation of the area in which the pipeline failed.
Credit: Securities and Exchange Commission

On July 20, an oil pipeline in Northern Saskatchewan ruptured, eventually leaking as much as 66,000 gallons of heavy crude oil and other chemicals into the North Saskatchewan River. Despite noticing a “pressure anomaly” in the line, pipeline operators failed to shut it down, and the leak continued for 14 hours before an oil sheen was reported on the river’s surface. By then, it was far too late for spill responders to try and localize the impacts of the spill, and nearly two weeks later, oil from the spill has traveled at least 300 miles downstream. In the spill’s aftermath, public drinking water supplies for as many 70,000 people have been disrupted, forcing cities and towns to scramble for new water sources as reserves quickly dried up. As Canada continues to be gripped by the debate over growth of the tar sands and heavy oil industries and pipelines to serve them—particularly Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East—a more troubling example of the outcomes of these development priorities is hard to imagine.

Another oil pipeline fails, this time in the worst possible way

The pipeline, which is owned and operated by Husky Energy Inc., ruptured near the company’s Paradise Hill thermal oil operations, which lie just north of the North Saskatchewan River. From Paradise Hill, Husky was using a 16-inch gathering pipe to move heavy, sediment-rich oil it had pumped and steamed from the ground and mixed with natural gas liquids as a diluent, to its upgraders in Lloydminster. Husky first claimed to have discovered the leak at 8 p.m. on July 20, delaying its notification to the provincial government by a staggering 14 hours. However, in updated reporting, Husky has revised its claim; eliminating the 14 hour gap and making it appear that the company did not in fact discover the leak until July 21, and notifying the government 30 minutes later. Neither scenario looks good for the company: in one their operators caught the leak, but didn’t shut down the line; in the other, operators missed the leak and let the oil flow into the river for 14 hours.

But the big story here isn’t that there was yet another crude oil pipeline spill—they’re apparently endemic in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It’s that pipeline regulators had done nothing to prevent the spill; that extra-heavy, diluted oil has spilled into yet another critical waterbody; that the drinking water of 70,000 people has been disrupted, possibly for months; and that spill response was completely inadequate for the scale of the event that took place.

On the first point, reports now confirm that, in the Husky Energy pipeline’s 19-year operating history, provincial regulators had not inspected the line a single time, instead relying on self-reporting by the operator. In enforcement circles, that’s known as a “free pass.”

On the second point, comparisons to the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River are spot on. While the types of oil spilled are thought to differ—Enbridge was carrying extra heavy diluted bitumen crude, while Husky was carrying extra heavy diluted heavy conventional crude—there is already some evidence to suggest that both types of oil, despite the industry’s claims about them floating on water, can and will sink when spilled into water. The Kalamazoo clean-up required extensive dredging of the river’s bottom to help remediate the 40 miles stretch where tar sands oil sank and created an impossible situation for spill responders. Sadly for communities along the North Saskatchewan, that is likely not on the table, as the oil has spread so far, so quickly, that clean-up efforts have focused largely on the area immediately around the pipeline’s breach.

On the third point, pipeline safety has been at the forefront of debates about new crude oil pipelines in Canada for years. With Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East proposals the current darlings of Canada’s oil industry, opposition has often focused on those pipelines’ crossings of major rivers, especially rivers that provide drinking water supplies to millions of Canadian citizens. Husky Energy’s pipeline fiasco has driven the point of this opposition home: even a relatively small spill from a relatively small pipeline can be catastrophic. What would happen if the 1.1 million barrel per day Energy East pipeline leaked diluted bitumen into Ottawa’s or Montreal’s water supplies for 14 hours before being noticed?

Images of the extensive clean up of Enbridge's 2010 tar sands spill in Michigan.
Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Finally, on the fourth point—and closely related to pipeline safety concerns—spill responders, though acting quickly upon learning of the spill, could do very little to contain its impacts. The speed at which the river was flowing, the presence of sediment, the inability of deployed booms to contain the oil, and other confounding factors all had a role. But these facts don’t call into question the actions of first responders; they call into question the assumption that we actually know how to contain oil spills in complex environments. If we don’t—and real world experiences suggest that we don’t—should we be shipping oil anywhere near (or over) waterbodies that not only sustain important ecosystems, but also provide thousands, if not millions, of people with fresh water? If this spill in a relatively lightly populated area is any indication, the answer is a resounding “no.”

There is another path, and it doesn’t involve rail or pipelines

Pipeline proponents, including Saskatchewan’s premier, were quick to offer up industry’s favorite pipeline talking point: well, they’re still safer than rail. But this amounts to an empty threat meant to scare the public into accepting new pipelines and it’s based on false assumptions. First, absent an extraordinary rebound in crude oil prices, rail will remain an economically marginal transportation option for Canada’s oil producers, and will continue to play only a limited role in moving oil to refining markets. Second, forcing Canadians to choose pipelines versus rail is really about forcing Canadians to accept that the oil industry has no interest in reigning in its dreams of massive expansion in Alberta’s tar sands, with all of the impacts to our climate and environment that comes with them. This “choice” is being presented despite growing concerns within Canada and without about the implications this growth would have on our shared climate, not to mention Canada’s international commitments to take bold actions on confronting the climate change threat within its own borders. There is, of course, another option: stop building new pipelines, maintain the ones you have, stop expanding tar sands production, and invest in economic sectors that will drive the world’s future energy needs, not its fossil fueled past.

Diluted heavy oils—and tar sands diluted bitumen especially—have no place on or near water. NRDC is working to highlight this fact with our call to President Obama to take action to stop tar sands diluted bitumen tankers and barges from accessing U.S. waters and ports. It’s our best option for keeping future tar sands spills in critical marine ecosystems from ever happening. Sign the petition today!


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