British Columbia won’t allow any increase in shipments of diluted bitumen through the province until the results of a scientific inquiry into the risks of oil spills in marine environments is completed, according to an announcement from the B.C. government on Tuesday.
“We are proposing we restrict the transport of diluted bitumen until we hear back from the B.C. scientific community about the impacts of a spill and what we would need to mitigate that,” B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman told DeSmog Canada.
Diluted bitumen is a mixture of bitumen — the unrefined, thickest form of petroleum extracted from Alberta’s oilsands — and natural gas condensate — the same substance the Iranian tanker Sanchi was carrying when it collided with another ship in the East China Sea. Condensate is added to allow the viscous substance to flow through pipelines.
The announcement has major implications for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.
Jessica Clogg, executive director and senior counsel of West Coast Environmental Law, celebrated the manoeuvre as “courageous.”
“Effectively the province has said if the science doesn’t show that you can clean up a dilbit spill safely and effectively then Kinder Morgan may never be able to turn the taps on, even if they can get the pipeline built,” Clogg told DeSmog Canada.
The announcement comes alongside a suite of new proposed regulations under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act to improve oil spill response and recovery.
Heyman said the move is a part of the government’s promise to employ every tool in the toolbox to protect British Columbia from a diluted bitumen, or dilbit, spill.
“Effectively the province has said if the science doesn’t show that you can clean up a dilbit spill safely and effectively then Kinder Morgan may never be able to turn the taps on, even if they can get the pipeline built.” - Jessica Clogg, @WCELaw https://t.co/fZdnnmT8sD— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) January 30, 2018
“Clearly as a province B.C. is not responsible for regulating vessel traffic but we do have authority to look at the impact of a spill if it lands on the coastline or a spill if it lands in local waterways,” Heyman said.
“What I’m determined to do is show British Columbians that what they expect from us is going to be delivered. We are going to do everything in our power to protect our coastline.”
The existing Trans Mountain oil pipeline runs from Hardisty, Alta., to Burnaby, B.C. Kinder Morgan’s proposal to build a new pipeline on a similar route would boost capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day, increasing the number of oil tankers in B.C.’s waters seven-fold from around 60 to 400 each year.
The project received federal approval — with 157 requirements — in November 2016, but faces strong opposition from First Nations and municipalities along the proposed pipeline route.
B.C. to address knowledge gaps in dilbit spills
In 2015 the Royal Society of Canada released a study that identified seven major knowledge gaps when it comes to the risk of a diluted bitumen spill in water.
“We want the advisory panel to look at the Royal Society of Canada information gaps and do it very specifically in a way that addresses conditions in British Columbia, with B.C. interests in mind and considering the different forms that heavy oil could be transported through B.C. via, rail, truck and pipeline,” Heyman said.
Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance, said today’s announcement is proof B.C. acknowledges “diluted bitumen behaves differently than conventional oil.”
“The best available science says it can sink or be suspended in water,” Wilhelmson said. “Currently, there is no effective technology that exists to clean it up, making prevention the only safe approach to protect our local waters, communities, economies and ecosystems.”
The behaviour of dilbit in water has become a touchstone issue in the debate about building new oilsands pipelines. While a 2012 Enbridge study found dilbit did not sink in a laboratory environment, a 2014 report released by the federal government found dilbit sinks when mixed with sediment.
In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling nearly three million litres of dilbit into a tributary of the Kalamazoo river where it mixed with sediment on the river’s bottom, triggering one of the most expensive onshore oil spill cleanup efforts in U.S. history.
“A pipeline rupture over salmon-bearing streams would be extremely detrimental to some already weak and declining salmon stocks,” Wilhelmson said, “regardless of whether the polluter is required to pay significant restitution costs.”
B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver welcomed the plan to do further scientific research.
“I look forward to the new panel providing complete, robust and accurate information on this matter to the minister that reinforces that which we already know — that there is no way currently to adequately respond to a spill of diluted bitumen.”
“We simply to not know enough to properly assess the risk and potential damages associated with a diluted bitumen spill in the Salish Sea,” Weaver said in a statement.
The province will release an intentions paper in February to solicit feedback on the restriction of dilbit transportation as well as new regulations related to spill response times, localized response plans for B.C.’s unique geographic regions and compensation.
Proposed regulations a boon to protect Indigenous rights, at risk species
The province’s move could provoke legal backlash from Kinder Morgan, Clogg said, but “by standing up for British Columbians, B.C. is reducing other types of risks.”
The new regulations could ease pressure in ongoing and potential legal battles to protect Indigenous rights and species at risk.
“It’s not aimed at Kinder Morgan in any way,” Clogg said. “It’s a regulation that applies across the board, to rail, pipelines — it’s very much focused on provincial jurisdiction.”
“The Environmental Management Act is directed at protecting the environment, species as well as people and human communities from toxic substances, that is what this is about,” Clogg said.
By asserting jurisdictional authority, B.C. may be setting the stage for better protections for species at risk, especially the remaining 76 members of the endangered southern killer whale population, which is not expected to survive the increase in tanker traffic from Trans Mountain.
The federal government’s decision to approve the pipeline is a violation of the Species at Risk Act, according to project opponents currently fighting its approval in the courts.
Canada’s Species at Risk Act is meant to protect the critical habitat of endangered species, regardless of plans for industrial projects. . But Canada’s track record on protecting species at risk is poor and, so far, rules haven’t been strong enough to prevent proposed projects from moving forward, despite impacts to endangered species.
This winter the independent scientific panel responsible for monitoring species at risk recommended the federal government add B.C.’s struggling sockeye salmon populations to the federal Species at Risk registry. The Trans Mountain pipeline has been identified as a significant risk to sockeye salmon.
“The way I see it legally, B.C. has the right and responsibility to look after things within its jurisdiction,” Clogg said.
“We live in an era of collaborative federalism and really when the review and federal go-ahead was given it was with a number of conditions, which included the Kinder Morgan project having to follow provincial and federal laws and permitting processes,” she said.
“All B.C. can do is act according to its responsibilities, which it’s clearly done here.”
Image: Tanker in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet. Photo: Travis Ford via Flickr