It has now been over a week since the Husky Oil Spill in the North Saskatchewan River. To date I have resisted writing much on the topic as details on the spill have been scarce and contradictory. As a blogger who prides himself on reporting reliable information, the information about the spill was not good enough to justify a blog post.
Today a trickle of information was released by Husky on the spill. So what do we know now that we didn’t know a week ago? First and foremost we now know that the 250,000 L spill was not diluted bitumen (dilbit), as has been suggested by many, but was rather a conventional oil called HLU Blended LLB Heavy Crude Oil but known better by its common named “Llloyd Blend”. Lloyd Blend is a “heavy sour” meaning it has a relatively low API and high sulphur content. Of particular importance it has an average density of about 922 kg/m3 (specific gravity of 0.922 when compared to a specific gravity of pure water of 1.0) and thus will float. Unlike dilbit, it does not typically get transported with any substantial amounts of diluents so all those fears of oil “and other toxins” can be laid to rest. That is not to say that the material is not bad stuff, but a conventional oil spill is easier to clean up than a dilbit spill, in a freshwater environment.
From a remediation perspective, Lloyd Blend will actually respond in a very similar way to the “dilbit in the ocean scenario” I described in this post. Since conventional oil is that much lighter than bitumen, most of the material will float in freshwater even after substantial volatization (unlike dilbit which eventually becomes denser than fresh water and sinks). Like any heavy hydrocarbon, some material will become affixed to aquatic sediments that will eventually get heavy enough to sink as “tar balls”. As a crude with a specific gravity less than 1, most of the material will initially float and can be (has been) captured by floating booms. As described in the press about half of the material has already been recovered while much of the material that has escaped is now coating the river’s edges for kilometers downstream especially at the curves. For remediation purposes there is less likely to be a large reservoir of semi-solid material on the river bottom that will need dredging and as the Saskatchewan Environment official suggested a lot of the material will never be recovered. That means that as the consultant for Husky suggested much of the material that remains in the river will have to degrade through natural attenuation.
Laboratory results are complete for more than 900 of the water samples, and the primary indicators of the oil (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes (BTEX), total hydrocarbon fractions (F1-F4), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) have shown exceedances of applicable Canadian drinking water guidelines in five samples within 20 km. No additional exceedances have been detected in any samples at any location since July 24, 2016, including the water intakes at North Battleford and Prince Albert. Furthermore, no exceedances of agricultural water quality guidelines have been detected to date.
Husky also provided a map of where their sampling has taken place. If we are to believe their data, the initial results proximate to the spill initially exceeded the drinking water standards but further results met the standards; pretty much the scenario I painted out for a gasoline/diesel spill in a river in my earlier post.
Now this data release represents a useful first step, but is not nearly enough to calm anyone’s fears. I would expect that the Province will insist that the actual raw results from the sampling program be made available to the public, and am frankly surprised that Husky did not do that in the first place. Not providing that data raises all kinds of red flags and leaves me wondering what they are hiding.
Frankly, I don’t think Husky is helping itself, or the greater petroleum producing community with the way it has handled this spill. The fact that we only found out what was spilled over a week after the spill is ridiculous, especially considering how opponents of the oil industry have been using this spill for all it is worth. As I mentioned, this spill has coincided with the the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel consultation period and the spill was a major talking point at the event I attended with more than one speaker describing it as a “dilbit spill” and a reason to not build the pipeline.
Now, unlike a blogger, the news agencies couldn’t just sit and wait on the story which resulted in some very mixed results. Some news outlets stuck to the facts like Global and CBC while some others just went out and started reporting guesses as well as information that is demonstrably wrong. Consider this National Observer article that claims that both Prince Albert and North Battleford had their water supplies “immediately contaminated”. I suppose that is what happens when your lead reporter on a story is a specialist in “human rights and travel” and not a science reporter. That being said, those incorrect talking points are being repeated all over social media.
Going back to the activists, they have been absolutely feasting on this spill. The line I saw on Twitter went something like: “Let’s see Kinder Morgan pass Trans Mountain now”. Let’s talk a moment about the ridiculous case being made by the pipeline opponents. One activist argued:
The Kinder Morgan pipeline follows the Fraser River through the valley and the Thompson River north of Kamloops,” explained Sven Biggs, a campaigner for Stand, based in Vancouver. “Most of its route runs right along rivers and those supply drinking water to a lot of the communities along the route.
This comes from Sven Biggs, a campaigner for Stand (formerly ForestEthics) based in Vancouver. Now I find his description telling since I wrote the same thing in a previous blog post. The difference is that I also considered the only alternative to pipelines: oil-by-rail. As I pointed out in my previous post, while the pipelines are typically separated from the river’s edges, the same cannot be said for the rail lines used by the oil-by-rail trains. As I wrote in my previous post the pipeline route runs far less of its length along river edges than the oil-by-rail route. Consider the pipeline route in the communities of the Lower Mainland. The current pipeline route pretty-much avoids the rivers and runs straight down the valley; the rail lines, meanwhile, run pretty-much right along the river for much of the length of the Valley.
Moreover, as I have pointed out previously, absent the Trans Mountain not only are we going to see more oil trains, the Americans are going to see a lot more oil trains and those trains run along the headwaters of the Kootenay and Columbia River. Heck the Columbia River had a near miss in June and according to Stand (formerly ForestEthics) 259,000 Northwest students live within an oil train blast zone. Oddly enough even after coming up with these terrifying numbers the same group is trying to block pipelines which will only increase the number of oil trains running through the Pacific Northwest and placing those children at further risk.
The cognitive dissonance of these people is simply stunning. They claim that they don’t want oil trains AND they don’t want pipelines AND they don’t want tankers? Now I ask the simple question: what will they accept? You see those are the only alternatives to get oil to the refineries and gasoline/diesel to the stations. These people have such a tenuous grip on modern reality that they imagine that stopping the movement of all fossil fuels will result in a Shangri-La. Well the truth is that stopping all fossil fuel shipments will result in a scene out of The Walking Dead. As a matter of interest, I conducted a thought experiment on what would happen if all fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow and the results are not pleasant. A summary is presented at the end of this blog post.
Going back to the point of this post, the Husky Oil spill represents pretty much a classic example of how not to handle an oil spill from a public perception perspective. If reports are correct the spill might have been caught hours earlier than it was. The information flow has been virtually non-existent allowing activists to dominate the news cycle with faulty information. The clean-up appears to be going well, with over half the crude recovered, but even then it is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money to restore the damage and even more to restore the damage to the industry’s reputation. Meanwhile activists are using the spill to convince the public that pipelines are not safe and in doing so are going to force more oil onto the rails where it will pose a much greater risk to human and ecological health. This spill represents the equivalent of two train cars worth of material. The Oregon derailment was 16 rail cars that came dangerously close to spilling in the Columbia River. It was only a matter of luck that we aren’t looking at pictures of dead salmon floating down the Columbia River at this very moment. The unit trains that move along our river-sides are made up of 70-120 oil cars.
The thing these activists don’t appear to understand (as exemplified by Stand’s ridiculous battles against pipelines and oil-by-rail) is that the option of not using fossil fuels is not on the table. As I have pointed out previously, replacing fossil fuels will take decades of herculean effort, in the meantime we will need fossil fuels. If those fossil fuels aren’t transported by pipeline they will go by rail. We all know which is the safer alternative.
A thought experiment on what would happen if all fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow.
In this thought experiment we will assume that a mystical power has arrived on Earth and using some unknown technology eliminated all fossil fuels from the planet. What would happen? Since I live in Langley, I’m going to consider this from a Lower Mainland perspective.
If you lived in the Lower Mainland, all transportation systems (except Skytrain and a few hundred electric vehicles) would immediately stop. Stores would cease to get new supplies as all supplies are transported from warehouses by truck. No new supplies could get to the warehouses as all the trains depend on diesel, transport planes on aviation fuel and container ships on bunker oil or diesel. Soon the folks in the urban areas would be fighting over the remaining scraps in the stores and once those supplies were gone there would be nothing to replace them.
Starvation would not be the biggest concern though as in area likes Vancouver, the potable water and electrical supplies are dependent on diesel for pumps and the electrical system is maintained by men and women with trucks. We in BC pride ourselves on getting most of our energy from non-fossil fuel sources but absent those pumps and those trucks within days (perhaps weeks if we didn’t have any storms) our electricity supply would be down as well. With no electricity and no diesel all the pumps would fail and Vancouverites would suddenly discover that living in a rain-forest means nothing if you don’t have access to stored water.
Within a couple weeks, the city-centers would look like a scene from The Walking Dead, with corpses everywhere as the weakest folks lost out in the battles for the gradually diminishing supplies of food and water. Absent the sanitary system, the remaining folk would be fighting dysentery as human waste polluted the limited freshwater aquifers. Anyone with the capacity to do so would be moving away from the city-centers as quickly as possible to forage as far as they could roam by foot and on the remaining bikes (the remaining electric vehicles having used their last charge after the electrical system failed).
In the Lower Mainland the city folk would be streaming out towards the Valley where they would discover that virtually everything edible (from plant to animal) had long since been eaten by the Valley folk. Within a few months over 90% of the population would have succumbed to the lack of clean water and food leaving a small minority fighting it out over the few remaining crops. Come winter, absent fossil fuels, the remaining few would go back to burning wood for heat and in doing so would add to the ecological devastation wrought by the first wave of city folk cleansing the ecosystem of everything edible. Certainly in parts of the developing world and in portions of the prairies, subsistence-level communities might remain intact but they would be re-building on a planet that had been systematically stripped of everything edible by the 7 billion souls who did their best to survive and in doing so wrought an ecological apocalypse.
In television shows like The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse addresses our population density before the millions of hungry humans have had a chance to devastate the planet. In a post-fossil fuel world, those 7 billion souls would be fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of food and whatever large or mid-sized animals left behind would take hundreds of years to regenerate their populations and the ecosystem that came back would look a lot different from the ecosystem that existed before humans. Climate Change may represent a real threat to humanity, but absent fossil fuels it is likely that 6 billion or more people would pass away in the first six months in this post–fossil fuel world.