Research lacking on oil spills including latest one from Husky Energy: scientist

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

[Crews are working to clean up an oil spill by a Husky Energy pipeline in the North Saskatchewan River, near Maidstone, Sask. CANADIAN PRESS VIDEOS]

Since 1862, when Canada built one of the first oil pipelines in the world, there have been many spills.

Yet, as crews try to clean up the latest from the North Saskatchewan River, knowledge remains scant, says one of the authors of a recent Royal Society of Canada report on the issue.

“We have a lot of experience with oil spills but I think one of the things that stands out is that oil spills are treated in isolation,” says Peter Hodson, an ecotoxicologist and professor at the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University.

“The emphasis is on cleanup and, by the government, on collecting evidence to lay charges but there’s very little emphasis on learning from these spills, both in terms of prevention and distribution effects of the oil.”

Questions remain in particular about oil’s behaviour in freshwater and Arctic environments, he says.

More than 200,000 litres of heavy oil and solven – 1,200 barrels – leaked into the North Saskatchewan River from a Husky Energy pipeline near Maidstone, Sask., the night of July 20, and jeopardized the water source for several communities including Prince Albert.

Hodson says despite previous, similar incidents, there is a lack of information. The lessons learned remain largely in consultants’ reports.

“There are a lot of incidents that occur but the emphasis is on get in, clean it up so it looks good and get the hell out of town and call it a success,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

“I’m not sure that’s necessarily teaching us anything nor are we really learning about what the ultimate impacts that oil had.”

On Aug. 1, 2000, a Pembina Pipeline Corp. line ruptured and leaked 6,200 barrels of oil into the Pine River upstream from Chetwynd, in northeastern British Columbia.

It was the most expensive inland spill in B.C. history, costing Pembina $30 million for cleanup.

Like the North Saskatchewan, the Pine River was a high-flow body of water. The behaviour of the heavy oil in a river system was — and still is — largely unknown, along with how to remediate it without destroying the system, Hodson says.

The cleanup was challenging and the effects, long-reaching, he says.

“It will come back but it’s going to take a long time,” Hodson says. “I think this is going to be the case for the North Saskatchewan, as well.”

The public focus on proposed pipeline projects such as Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Energy East have “upped the ante” on the standards and planning for oil and gas pipelines, he says.

Today, there are 830,000 kilometres of underground natural gas and liquids pipeline criss-crossing the country, according to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

Much of that existing infrastructure is aging and under immense pressure, Hodson says.

“You have an expanding industry that is coming up against pipeline limitations and they’re pushing the system as hard as they can to take the oil to market,” he says.

“So the system is ripe for rupture, as it were, if everything is going full-bore. I think that’s part of the problem, as well.”

It took six years and more than US$1 billion to clean up 26,000 barrels of oil spilled from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and Illinois in 2010. That includes a $62 million penalty and $110 million for improvements to the company’s pipeline system, in accordance with a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced earlier this month.

Like the Pine River — and likely the North Saskatchewan — the cleanup had a heavy ecological impact, Hodson says.

“The assumption is out of sight, out of mind. There’s not a great deal known about what those long-term impacts are,” he says.

In its final report on the Kalamazoo spill released in April, the EPA noted the lack of knowledge, as well, particularly on the behaviour of heavy oil in a river environment.

The 488-page report of the Royal Society of Canada, funded by the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says there is an urgent need for science on the behaviour, fate and effects of various types of oil in varying environments.

And it recommends more collaborative research into spill response and prevention, among other things.

“We just seem to be repeating the same scenarios over and over again and the same questions seem to come up over and over again,” Hodson says.