You’ve undoubtedly heard a great deal about the proposed tar sands pipelines. They’re all over the news. There have been public hearings and many protests. Oil companies and governments certainly seem to like them. Many people don’t. There are certainly very good reasons to be concerned. The well being of wildlife is one of them.
In all, three pipelines are planned. Two of them would travel through British Columbia and the third would head south, through the American heartland to Texas’ gulf coast. In BC, the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would run from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, BC. A second new pipeline would be twinned with the existing Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, with its outlet in suburban Vancouver. The third, Trans Canada’s Keystone XL would run from the tar sands, south.
Animals at Risk
The most obvious problems for wildlife occur right at the source of the proposed pipelines. The Alberta Tar Sands lie under 141,000 sq. km (54,000 sq. miles) of forest and peat bog – an area the size as the whole state of Florida! Getting at the bitumen (the very heavy, tar-like oil that the pipelines would carry) involves stripping the land of the forest and peat and digging enormous open pit mines from which it is extracted. Enormous numbers of animals are losing their habitat and their lives already, even without the new pipelines. No one, it seems, is keeping a good count but without a doubt the number is astronomical.
We know most about how bears, wolves and herds of caribou are faring. Caribou may be extinct in the tar sands region just 30 years from now. Bears and wolves who wander too close to the mines are shot or poisoned. Incredibly, wolf-shooting is the main thrust of the Canadian government’s “plan” to save the caribou!
Other animals are threatened by the byproducts of tar sands extraction. Among the biggest threats are the tailings ponds. Extracting bitumen takes huge volumes of water. Hot water is used to melt the bitumen and free it from the surrounding slurry of sand and mud. Not surprisingly, the water that’s left over from this process is oily and tarry. This water has to be disposed of somewhere and that’s mostly into the holding ponds. Remember the 1600 ducks who made the mistake of landing in one of them during a storm a few years ago? What nasty deaths they endured.
All this is happening even without the three proposed new pipelines. If the pipelines are built, the damage will be multiplied. As will the speed at which it occurs. And this added damage, unfortunately, is just a part of what the pipelines would do.
Long, Linear Disruptions
The proposed pipelines would cut across vast wildernesses. Both of the BC pipelines would be over 1100 km long. Keystone XL, almost 1900 km. Along the routes, especially through BC, sensitive wildlife will be affected. Pipelines are generally buried underground. But above them, there is a 25-30 meter wide right of way. That right of way is cleared, so that the pipeline can be easily accessed and maintained. The clearing runs along virtually their entire length and it is this, as the Globe and Mail has reported, that is likely to be another big problem for caribou, whose populations are already in decline due to logging. “Linear disturbances actually contribute to population decline.”
The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, the Globe and Mail report tells us, crosses the migration routes of at least 5 already threatened BC herds. The problem, evidently, is that wolves are smart and wait along cleared right of ways for the caribou appear. They then hunt them down. Without doubt, many other species will be similarly affected if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built. Sure, it’s nothing like the scale of damage that tar sands mining is doing but it’s a threat that would build upon the other damage already done by logging in BC.
Flows Like Peanut Butter
That the pipelines disrupt wilderness is one direct problem with them. There’s also the stuff that’ll actually be flowing through the pipelines:
Bitumen will not flow through pipelines on its own. It has the consistency of peanut butter. So it has to be diluted. To flow through the pipelines, it is dissolved in solvents like natural gas condensate and naphtha. This combination, diluted bitumen, is known as “dilbit.” Unfortunately, even dilbit doesn’t like to flow at everyday temperatures. Sure, it flows way better than raw bitumen, but not well enough to run through a pipeline – unless it is quite hot to the touch.
Dilbit has to be kept between 50o-60o Celsius (122 to 140o Fahrenheit) for it to flow well. So the pipelines carrying the stuff must be much warmer than the usual 10o-20o C (50-68o F) at which conventional oil pipelines operate. Some argue that the higher temperatures needed to move dilbit will cause the pipes to rust out more quickly than usual. The oil industry disputes this claim. We don’t know. Sadly, we’ll likely have to wait and see.
Still – whether corrosion is higher than normal or not – it is highly likely that the pipelines will – sometime, somewhere – leak. And more than once. Leaks are not exactly uncommon among the pipelines that already run through Alberta. Dilbit will flow onto the land and into rivers, lakes and streams. And, once spilled, it can be extraordinarily difficult to clean up.
The cleanup from the 2010 dilbit spill from an Enbridge pipeline near Kalamazoo, Michigan is a case it point. Over $600,000,000 has been spent so far, a cost, per liter spilled, about 10 times higher than that of comparable ‘conventional’ spills. This, it seems, is because once it spilled into the river, much of the bitumen sank. The industry claims that dilbit floats, but the real life experience near Kalamazoo was that much of the solvent and bitumen separated and bitumen went to the bottom. It became embedded in river sediments. Hence the extraordinary difficulty in cleaning up the spill. In fact, they’re still cleaning it up.
Spills like these, of course, – at land, at sea, or wherever – are very bad for wildlife. Waterfowl and other aquatic/amphibious animals are at high risk for being coated in oil – a usually fatal event. Food sources can disappear for bears, muskrats, etc. Some animals (and, likely, some humans) will be overcome by fumes. A toxic cloud of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, etc., emanates from spilled dilbit, as the government of Michigan is now acutely aware.
Photo: Oiled bird.
Of particular concern in BC is the fact that the province is the site of some of the biggest earthquakes in the world. They don’t happen often but when they do, they are doozies! If one of those once in 300-500 year events happens, will the pipelines hold up to the fracturing and sinking of the rock and soil that will be going on all around them? The last BC megathrust earthquake took place on January 26, 1700. That was 313 years ago. Coastal regions are most at risk.
End of the Line
If the pipelines are built, the dilbit in them will eventually reach the sea and be carried away in tankers. If the pipelines go ahead, the number of tankers in Vancouver’s harbor will skyrocket. Ditto for the Texas gulf coast. Similar numbers of giant ships will suddenly appear in northern BC, too. Frighteningly, the waters there are similar to those in which the Exxon Valdez ran aground. It is hard to believe that there will not, sooner or later, be an Exxon Valdez-type major accident.
And, of course, if a tanker spill happens, fish and birds and otters and whales will all be very seriously affected. There will be a lot of suffering and death. We’ve all seen the pictures of oil-soaked animals. Some of the tankers planned to carry the dilbit through BC waters are 4 times the size of the Exxon Valdez. Tankers are reportedly better built today, but still, their numbers and sizes would pose a serious risk for the coast of BC and those who live in and near those waters.
This Can’t Go On
Clearly, the mining of the Alberta tar sands and the transport of its products are a serious threat to wildlife. That said, the mining and transport of tar sands, like the mining of coal and the ‘fracking’ of natural gas – and even drilling for conventional oil and gas – are all dangerous. They’d be dangerous even if they had no immediate effects on wildlife. That’s because they’re all contributing substantively to global warming. If we don’t get a handle on global warming, the we can expect our planet to heat up by some 3 to 5 degrees C (5 to 9 degrees F) by the middle of this century. The Arctic is already experiencing warming approaching this scale. Worse, temperatures would keep rising for many decades afterwards. Not many species will survive that unscathed.
More immediately for us and the animals around us in our day to day to day lives, cars and trucks kill as many as a million animals each day on just North American roads. That is another deadly effect of the oil we’re taking from the tar sands and elsewhere.
A Better Future is Possible
Without a doubt, fossil fuels have enormously improved our lives. Virtually nothing we take for granted in our modern world would be here had we not discovered the enormous energy reserves that fossil fuels have held and hold. But the times are changing. And we need to change. Fortunately, the times are now ripe for that change.
Just this month, scientists at Stanford University published a plan by which cold New York State could be running on entirely renewable (hydro, solar, wind) energy within 20 years. The plan is economical and practical. It is thoughtful and it is heartening. Make sure you read it.
We don’t need this tar sands oil. All we need is the collective will to take on a plan like the Stanford scientists propose and apply it across the world. A little over a hundred years ago, we were embarking on a new, promising energy future. It fit the time and, in many ways, it served us well. That time is past now, though. Let’s embark on a new, promising energy future that fits our times. In the long run, we and the other species we share this planet with will be much, much better off.
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David Steele has a Ph.D in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University and has been working as a Research Scientist at the University of British Columbia since 1998. He is also the President of Earthsave Canada.