“It seems to me that one of the most clear things from this discussion is that we aren’t ready for this, but that the industry is going to force it down our throats,” the resident of Wellesley Island said, speaking to the four panelists who made a presentation on the impact of crude oil shipments from Canada’s Alberta oil sands during the annual winter environmental conference held by Save the River. “What are the oil and pipeline companies doing? … I think they’re dumping it on our lap. And it’s quite clear we aren’t ready for this.”
Mr. Taylor was among about 170 people — about 30 of them Canadians — who attended a variety of river-related presentations during the 26th annual conference. Most of the attendees were members of Save the River, an environmental advocacy group based in Clayton.
Emma Lui, water campaigner for the Council of Canadians of Ottawa, responded to Mr. Taylor’s comments by saying that his concerns about crude oil were merited. She said research shows that the Canadian government, for example, would be ill-equipped to handle a crude oil spill of about 10 percent from a standard-size Aframax oil tanker. The government would have a maximum of about $1.4 billion to cover such a spill, she said, which would cost at least $2 billion to clean up.
“That’s a huge concern,” Ms. Lui said. “And I appeal to everyone in the room that it’s our responsibility to be highlighting this. If we’re not ready for a spill, we shouldn’t be going ahead with it.”
The Council of Canadians believes that all transportation of tar-sands oil should be banned on and near the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, Ms. Lui said.
Much of the panel discussion was focused on the glut of crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta and the Bakken Shale Formation in Montana, which is being transported to refineries across the U.S. Experts said the crude oil — called diluted bitumen — has posed a serious threat to the Great Lakes and could impact the St. Lawrence River in the future.
Tar sands are a type of petroleum deposit that contains sand, clay and water saturated with a dense kind of petroleum called bitumen, Ms. Lui said. Because bitumen has the consistency of molasses, it has to be separated with chemical diluents to be transported by pipelines. Diluted bitumen floats briefly when spilled, she said, but then it sinks as its light components evaporate. As a result, it becomes more difficult to clean up and poses a greater risk to watersheds than conventional crude oil.
To illustrate, Ms. Lui cited a massive spill in July 2010 in southwestern Michigan, in which nearly 4 million liters of diluted bitumen spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. A ruptured pipeline operated by Calgary-based Enbridge Pipelines Inc. was responsible for the spill, which resulted in a cleanup cost of about $1.2 billion.
“And even after 1.2 billion dollars was put into it, it’s still not clean,” she said.
Though the St. Lawrence River isn’t now used much to transport diluted bitumen, Ms. Lui said, that could change. Last fall, the first oil tanker to transport diluted bitumen on the St. Lawrence made a shipment from the port of Sorel-Tracy in Quebec, east of Montreal, she said. Owned by Suncor Energy Inc. of Calgary, that tanker carried about 700,000 barrels of the oil to Italy, while a second tanker carried a load in October to the Gulf of Mexico.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
The U.S. Coast Guard has focused much of its attention in recent years to understanding how to respond effectively to diluted bitumen spills, according to T.J. Mangoni, supervisor of the District Response Advisory Team for the 9th District of the Coast Guard, which is responsible for overseeing operations across the Great Lakes. He said that in the case of the Enbridge oil spill on the Kalamazoo River, 22 Coast Guard posts supported the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in cleanup efforts.
Mr. Mangoni said that the Coast Guard is required to plan for worst-case scenarios and that he is confident in the Coast Guard’s ability to respond effectively to serious oil spills. He said the Kalamazoo River spill helped the Coast Guard develop better techniques.
“There are many different techniques that organizations are now prepared to try to capture it within the (water) column, and also removing sediments from the bottom,” he said. “And it’s going to be a case-by-case.”
The effectiveness of the response to an oil spill is often based on how quickly crews are able to remove it from the water surface, said Gary P. McCullouch, spill engineer for state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 6, which encompasses Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Oneida and Herkimer counties.
Diluted bitumen “doesn’t sink immediately,” he said. “So I think our greatest focus is speed … you can get a lot of that oil off the surface before it sinks. And I think part of the discussion should be about our initial response techniques.”
Mr. McCullouch cited the last major recorded oil spill in the St. Lawrence River, in the summer of 1976, when the fuel barge Nepco 140 ran aground near Alexandria Bay, spilling about 300,000 gallons. He said that spill cost about $8 million to clean up, but the process wasn’t effective because the Coast Guard’s knowledge about oil discharges was limited at the time.
“With that experience behind us, and a greater focus on safety, cooperation and more comprehensive cleanup and disposal strategies, a spill of that magnitude today would easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr. McCullouch said, emphasizing the importance of efforts to prevent future spills.
Mr. McCollouch said that while oil spills have always been a threat, the recent national spotlight on the risks of crude oil transportation has re-emphasized the importance of preventing spills. In that sense, he said, it has been a positive trend. He said organizations at the state and federal level are cooperating more to understand how to better combat spills.
“It’s fashionable to work together again,” he said.
Photo Credit: Sarah Ellen Smith
From left to right: Lee Willbanks, Kushan Dave, TJ Mangoni, Gary McCullouch, and Emma Lui