All oil spills are a catastrophic mess. But there are degrees of catastrophic—and the very worst degree is spills of nonfloating oil. As the name implies, nonfloating oil is heavy crude that sinks quickly to the bottom when it spills onto water, and is extraordinarily hard to clean up when that happens–unlike lighter crude oils that you can at least partially contain with surface booms and skim off.
Fortunately, the California legislation designed to address nonfloating oil has passed the California Assembly, and is now pending in the Senate. AB 936, authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, would make sure that California is as prepared as possible for a nonfloating oil spill, and able to respond quickly and properly if the worst happens. It would require the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response to do research to identify the best methods for addressing nonfloating oil and integrate them into the state’s oil spill contingency planning process, and develop a new nonfloating oil rating category for oil spill response organizations (OSROs). Tankers carrying nonfloating oil would then have to identify a suitably-rated OSRO.
AB 936 is here not a moment too soon. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greenlighted the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which will (if it survives legal hurdles) take heavy crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to Canada’s Pacific Coast. That crude will then be shipped to ports all up and down the West Coast, including the Bay Area and the Port of Los Angeles. This is only the latest development in a long term trend toward increased imports of heavy crude to California. California’s refineries are mostly equipped to process that type of crude, and they’re seeking outside sources of it—from Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada—as California’s own production of heavy crude continues to decline.
California does have regulations on the books that address oil spills, but they are insufficient to get at the problem of nonfloating oil. Regulations generally address heavy oil, but the problem is that such oil—for instance, the crude that will be shipped through the Trans Mountain Pipeline—is often diluted for transport. Tar sands oil is the consistency of peanut butter when it comes out of the ground, meaning you have to mix it with a diluent like natural gas condensate to get it to flow in a pipeline or into a tanker. So this type of diluted product may not strictly fit the definition of heavy oil when it’s shipped—but when it spills, all hell breaks loose. The diluent goes up in a cloud of toxic fumes (including carcinogenic benzene), and the remaining heavy oil goes straight to the bottom. The Coast Guard recognized this problem in Guidelines issued in 2016; and AB 936 will make sure that California also addresses specifically the problem of diluted nonfloating crude.
Unfortunately, the problem is not conjecture: we know quite well from experience what happens when diluted nonfloating oil spills over water. In 2010, a pipeline transporting diluted bitumen from the Canadian tar sands ruptured near the Kalamazoo River, with exactly this result. Much of the oil sank to the bottom, and it took years and $1.2 billion dollars to try to dredge it out—the costliest inland oil spill ever. Right after the spill, levels of toxic air contaminants near the spill spiked.
California needs a spill of this nature fouling its coast like it needs a hole in...well, a tanker. NRDC and our partners are working hard to ensure that AB 936 passes the legislature and is signed into law by Governor Newsom.