On dilbit, oil spill response and political gamesmanship

As many of my readers know my day job involves investigating and remediating contaminated sites. My particular specialty is the investigation and remediation of petroleum hydrocarbon impacts [and before anyone asks, no I have never worked for Kinder Morgan nor do I have any conflicts of interest associated with the Trans Mountain file]. I have a PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies and have spent the last 18 years learning how hydrocarbons behave when spilled in the natural environment. This post comes out of my surprise at the provincial government’s announcement that they are proposing a freeze on increases in the transportation of dilute bitumen (dilbit) until they can create an independent scientific advisory panel to help address the scientific uncertainties outlined in the  Royal Society of Canada (RSC) Expert Panel report The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments. The reason for my surprise is that, unlike most British Columbian’s, I have read the RSC report and the uncertainties expressed in the RSC report are not going to substantially change how spill response is planned or carried out in the West Coast of BC.

Before we go further I am going to make a blanket statement. It is my belief, informed by my years of study and practical experience in the field, that we know enough about how diluted bitumen (dilbit) will behave when spilled to design a world-class spill response regime. Why do I make such a statement? Let’s start by dispelling some myths. The first thing to understand is that virtually everything the activists (and certain politicians) tell you about dilbit is wrong. I have previously described the state of the research on dilbit and its behaviour in marine environments. To summarize, the research shows that dilbit behaves pretty much like other heavy oils in a spill scenario. In the marine environment dilbit floats, which is understandable based on it being a non-polar liquid with a density less than seawater. In freshwater environments the blend of dilbit and the length of time after the spill event will define how it behaves. Sometimes it will float for days on end and sometimes it will float for only a few days and then sink; as this graph from the National Academies of Science (NAS) report on the subject displays:

NAS study Fig 3-2

Whether it sinks or floats is something you can predict once you know the blend of the dilbit (see the difference between the two blends in the figure) and the conditions in the freshwater environment. If the dilbit spills into really silty water (either fresh or seawater) it will form oil-particle aggregates (OPAs) which, under certain conditions, will sink to the bottom. In other cases it gets entrained in the water column (and thus can become harder to clean). Once again this is almost exactly what all heavy crude oils do in the same conditions. To summarize, dilbit is not some existential threat to humankind, it is like many other heavy crude oils out there. When spilled it will cause a mess, but no bigger mess than a similar heavy oil. The world community has lots of practice and knowledge about how to handle heavy oil spills. This is a topic about which a huge amount of time, money and intellectual energy has been directed. The expertise of the world community can be used to inform our spill response.

At this point I can hear the activist saying: but what about the RSC report? To them I say: try actually reading the report. You see, the report is about all crude oils spills, so very little of its content refers to dilbit per se, rather the report is about all crude oils including dilbit. This is an important distinction because most of the recommendations for further research proposed by the RSC are general in nature and reflect all oils not just dilbit. Let’s look at what the Executive Summary says are the “high-priority research needs”:

High-Priority Research Needs Identified by the Expert Panel
1. Research is needed to better understand the environmental impact of spilled crude oil in high-risk and poorly understood areas, such as Arctic waters, the deep ocean and shores or inland rivers and wetlands.
2. Research is needed to increase the understanding of effects of oil spills on aquatic life and wildlife at the population, community and ecosystem levels.
3. A national, priority-directed program of baseline research and monitoring is needed to develop an understanding of the environmental and ecological characteristics of areas that may be affected by oil spills in the future and to identify any unique sensitivity to oil effects.
4. A program of controlled field research is needed to better understand spill behaviour and effects across a spectrum of crude oil types in different ecosystems and conditions.
5. Research is needed to investigate the efficacy of spill responses and to take full advantage of ‘spills of opportunity’.
6. Research is needed to improve spill prevention and develop/apply response decision support systems to ensure sound response decisions and effectiveness.
7. Research is needed to update and refine risk assessment protocols for oil spills in Canada.

Notice the the terms used: “better understand”, “increase the understanding”, “improve”, “update”. These aren’t the terms of a group that knows nothing about a topic, these are the terms of a group that wants to see incremental gains to our knowledge-base. Why is this important? Well because our provincial government has not banned the movement of ALL oil products even though the RSC report expresses concerns about all oil products. The provincial government has only expressed concern about one type of oil: dilbit. There is a serious disconnect here. It is almost as if the ban is not based on science but is instead a bit of political gamesmanship.

That being said research has advanced since the RSC report was published. What does the current research say? As Natural Resources Canada Research Scientist Dr. Heather Dettman points out:

light crude, a low-viscosity oil, may actually be more hazardous [than dilbit]. When light crude hits water, it’s “like adding cream to coffee. That’s it. It’s all mixed in, it gets stuck in the sediment.”

Dr. Dettman pointed to the 2010 dilbit spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

“It looks ugly and it’s not good for the fish. But because it’s there you can see it, you can pick it up, and then it’s gone,” she said. “We get a very high recovery rate.”

Here is a longer discussion with her on the radio. As Dr. Dettman points out, we have practical experience with handling a dilbit spill in in the Burrard Inlet and the results were heartening. Virtually no OPAs were formed and most of the dilbit was recovered. This was a lucky spill however, as it occurred in an area with limited wave action and no storms. Now let’s go back to Dr. Detman.

Dr. Dettman said she and her team have built substantially on the body of dilbit research since the Royal Society report was released three years ago. Their experiments – performed in an open tank filled with fresh North Saskatchewan River water – show that various blends of diluted bitumen won’t sink until the sludge has been left alone for at least 21 days, she said.

Even then, she added, only one type of bitumen found its way to the tank floor, even in warm conditions.

She said the data seem to indicate diluted bitumen tends to form a hardy slick on the water’s surface – a spill that can be somewhat contained – rather than dissolve into the water and end up coating riverbeds and marine life.

“The misinformation is that diluted bitumen will sink,” Dr. Dettman said. “But it’s not sinking.”

The reality of the situation is that any oil spill, be it crude oil or diluted bitumen, represents a tragedy and catastrophe. It will harm the natural environment, will kill some marine organisms, and will be very hard to clean up. The point of this blog post is that a diluted bitumen spill would not be a uniquely catastrophic situation. It would be comparable to a spill of any other heavy crude…you know the products that have been safely shipped in and through the Salish Sea for the last 50+ years. Banning the transport of dilbit until we have done more research has no basis in science. It is a political game. Any “independent scientific advisory panel” will end up concluding that we have the information to design a world-class spill regime. Anyone who says otherwise is either not aware of the state of research in the field of spill response or has a political axe to grind. You can decide where our current government and the anti-pipeline activists stand on this topic.




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29 Responses to On dilbit, oil spill response and political gamesmanship

  1. Chris Aikman says:

    You are describing dilbit as if it is a single material with well defined characteristics. But it’s not.
    It is the diverse nature of diluents and bitumen that form dilbit which make it so dangerous. The point here is that normal crude oil consists mainly of mid-sized hydrocarbon molecules, while dilbit contains mainly the largest and smallest hydrocarbon molecules, which separate quickly when spilled.
    Dilbit has a strongly bimodal molecular weight distribution, unlike natural petroleum or refined products that have a single or broad peak of molecular weights. That means it has a multi-peaked
    Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. When spilled it will separate into a volatile component and a dense component.

    We need to learn from the Kalamazoo, MI & Mayflower, AK spills. Pressure in a pipe moving dilbit fluctuates, making recognition of a leak more difficult. Those spills were not because a hole appeared in the pipe: the pipes ruptured lengthwise suggesting fluctuating pressure caused metal fatigue.

    We have been told piping dilbit is just like piping petroleum. I don’t buy it. It’s something different, and its vapours are toxic. How many people actually died slow deaths from the dilbit vapours released in those spills? The dead don’t speak, so we must.

    Can we afford to risk the paralyzation of the lower mainland of BC’s population that would follow a major dilbit spill from (say) an earthquake, a landslide or a terrorist attack?

    We can and should upgrade tarsands to synthetic crude here in Canada, before shipping. That would create jobs for Canadians, and be a whole lot safer.


    • Blair says:

      I explicitly state that different blends have different characteristics, which is entirely consistent with other heavy crude oils. As for its distribution when spilled the bimodal nature means that the condensate evaporates when spilled resulting in a gradual increase in density over time. As described in the literature even after significant time the bitumen retains some condensate. As a mixture it flows within its expected characteristics and while harder to transport via pipeline can be readily transported that way as experience shows.

      As for the vapours from dilbit they are similar to other fuels with the exception that condensate has very low aromatics so condensates are far less of a carcinogen than lighter crudes. As for deaths, there were no deaths from those spills, we would have heard about them had they actually occurred so that is simply not true.

      As for the earthquake fears, at the open house in Langley an engineer from the project pointed out that they have considered earthquake risk and the pipeline is designed to survive earthquakes greater than 9.0 so that is once again a hollow fear on your part. As for terrorists, if they wanted to hurt us they would attack natural gas lines not dilbit lines but if that is your biggest concern then you are really reaching here.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Doug MacKenzie says:

      Chris, much hype to your “…slow deaths from dilbit vapours…”. That diluent is about as “toxic” as regular grade gasoline, which of course you don’t want to drink, but you also don’t rush to the hospital if you get a whiff of it’s aromatics while filling you tank.


    • Rich Hood says:

      Dilbit is lacking many of the C6 to about C30 molecules that are found in normal criuude oil. If it sull had these materials it would be normal crude oil. If you take the asphaltenes out of bitumen its density is 0.985 g/ml, lighter than even fresh water. If diluent is added to make it pipelineable the density is even less and there is no logical reason for pentane (diulent) to separate from Deasphalted Alberta Bitumen. Whoever wrote thsi article should contact me via LinkedIn


      • Chris Aikman says:

        It’s been a while since I studied undergrad statistical mechanics, but my understanding is this:
        because the mid-molecular weight molecules are absent in dilbit, as the molecules exchange kinetic energy in a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution (which applies to an ideal gas, but approximately so in fluids) the lighter molecules acquire greater velocity & will vaporize faster. First responders rushing to a spill may inhale much higher concentrations of these light hydrocarbons than in a petroleum spill. Once these vapours disperse, what’s left are the heavy hydrocarbons which will eventually sink, becoming unrecoverable, remaining as a pollutant for a very long time.

        I was told by a pipeline spokesman some years ago that they put four different blends through the Transmountain pipeline, alternating the blends. With different fluidity, it seems that internal stresses within the pipe will vary. Perhaps this is why such pipelines experience pressure fluctuations (which can mask a rupture), and perhaps this is why such pipes rupture longitudinally, as they did at Kalamazoo & Mayflower.


  2. Alex McPherson says:

    Great article. The difference between evidence based and political based.


  3. Roger Meredith says:

    Thank you for the very timely and informative blog.


  4. Ken Foster says:

    As a PhD Physical Chemist, retired from the public service of Canada, I find your piece timely, and a breath of fresh air. You really should put a shortened summmary of it in an op/ed or letter-to-the-editor of the Vancouver Sun.


    • Alison Malis says:

      People against the pipeline and KM would just put their fingers in their ears and go lalalalala. There have been, apparently, 11 deaths “associated” with the Kalamazoo spill. That’s all, apparently, they need to know, because that means, apparently, that it WILL happen here.


  5. Andy says:

    Another great blog post. The amount of money Canada, not just Alberta, loses every day in the price differential between what we get for oil and the world price for oil would easily pay for a rapid response to any spill. Leaving lots of money left over for things like healthcare, education, environmental research, and fine BC wine.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bob Antoniuk says:

    Hmmm. I wonder what one of the world’s foremost environmental scientists and expert in fresh water, river and lake, systems would say about Premier Horgan’s insistence that Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline receive an honest and thorough environmental review before proceeding. Seems that Dr. David Schindler of the University of Alberta is of the opinion that Horgan’s views are supported by the science. “B.C.’s pipeline vigilance is backed by science” David Schindler http://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-b-c-s-pipeline-vigilance-is-backed-by-science


  7. Chris Aikman says:

    It’s a long time since I studied organic chemistry, but I don’t find much comfort in this account of the spill risks posed by dilbit:

    It seems there a many unanswered questions remaining. Even if no more toxic than petroleum, it is harder to clean up, and therefore more persistent in the environment.

    Another aspect of the problem is that the actual composition of dilbit is rarely specified. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from history here. Following the ‘invention’ of kerosene by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner in 1854, its use in lamps became very poplar (long before gas or diesel engines were practical). But marketed versions of kerosene varied considerably in composition & volatility, which resulted dangerous & tragic outcomes. The genius of John D. Rockefeller Sr was to use a rigourously controlled process of distillation to produce a “standard oil”. By the 1890s, he controlled about 90% of the American petroleum market as Standard Oil.

    Likewise, dilbit varies in composition and volatility. It’s use will be dangerous and tragic until we settle on a standard product before shipment. That is why bitumen should be upgraded to a product whose characteristics are well defined before it goes into any pipeline or ship, if we have any hope of handling it safely. No more Kalamazoo or Lac Megantic tragedies, please.


  8. Cornfield says:

    Every report appears to say we need a “world class spill response”. It would seem the question to ask is “do we have a world class spill response?” If we don’t then why not?

    The solution is simple. Develop a world class spill response, make sure everything possible is done to ensure that a spill becomes a very remote possibility from production, through distribution, and consumption. Only then should approval be given to increase pipeline distribution.

    Personally I prefer to see us (Canadians) manufacture products from our raw natural resources and export the surplus. This approach benefits our domestic economy by generating jobs and wealth in Canada. A little simple but you get the idea.


  9. Ben says:

    I find the debate on how dilbit reacts in the marine environment interesting but I think everyone is missing the point. The issue is not whether dilbit or crude oil will float or sink. Given a particular marine environment and weather conditions 50% may float and 50% may sink. Of the 50% that may float present technology may recover 20% in an open marine environment. The focus should not be on trying to develop world-class spill recovery technology or system but rather to make sure that within acceptable risk levels it ‘never’ happens.
    After the Exxon Valdez spill both the oil and shipping industries considered vary carefully what they should do to make sure such a disaster never happens again. They had 2 choices to spend their money: develop oil spill technologies that would ensure the near 100% recovery of spilled oil or design new ships and operational systems to meet the no spill objective. I would suggest that these industries made the right choice and spent very little on new oil spill technology but rather on improved ship design and operating practices. The result is that there have been no major oil spill from tankers in the last 20 years.
    Our governments need to make sure that those tankers carrying ‘our’ dilbit our designed, operated and maintained to the highness standards when navigating through Canadian waters. The tankers must be tethered to tugs as they travelled close to coastal waters until such time as they pose no threat to our coastal communities.
    I agree with the statements made about Canada treating our bitumen into a less harmful product before we ship it overseas. Canada has the knowledge and capabilities to refine bitumen into gasoline or diesel. This would not only provide jobs but also substantial revenue that would stay in Canada.


    • Andre says:

      There is a reason that we don’t have more refineries. There is no incentive to invest the massive amount of capital required just to serve a domestic market when the shortfall can be handled by existing refineries across the border.
      In essence our market is for feedstock for existing refineries in Asia primarily. They don’t want refined products. They want feedstock to make their own.
      The bulk of the refined goods market is in South America and Europe and is already serviced. Geographically we are at a disadvantage and unable to compete in that market.


      • Ben says:

        Although I agree that the Asian market would prefer to get the dilbit vs refined product there are 2 issues that would support Canada having additional refining capacity on the west coast of B.C. Soon the US will produce more oil (mainly shale oil) than they can refine using existing refining capacity. Additionally many of the US refineries will not be able to meet new environmental regulations or produce the higher quality gasoline or diesel such EURO V. As a result they will not need or want the cheaper and lower quality canadian dilbit. Canada is expected to produce 4 million bpd of oil by 2023 and should manage this resource in a more environmentally responsible manner rather than shipping the pollution to other parts of the world.
        Secondly the Chinese have invested heavily in the oil sands with the expectation that they would have access to their bitumen via pipeline to the west coast. Right now their bitumen is going to the US at a huge discount. If they can’t get their bitumen they will certainly take their product as gasoline or diesel especially if they have a stake in the refinery


  10. Chris Aikman says:

    Even if some of the above discussion is flawed, we need to bear in mind these two irrefutable points:
    1. We (as global citizens) need to drastically reduce our extraction and combustion of all hydrocarbons. To do otherwise is to risk environmental, political and social collapse from climate change.
    2. Granted that we will still need some amount of hydrocarbon-sourced energy, that energy should be extracted and transported in the absolutely safest way, within economic constraints. I can’t believe dilbit can fulfill that test.


  11. rckkrgrd says:

    I have come late to this thread but am unable to ignore the bits about the dangers of condensate. I have transported many thousands of gallons of condensate and oil and suffered no ill effects.
    Condensate is dangerous in that it can be highly volatile and as such requires approximately the same care as gasoline. You would not want to drink either one or take a bath in it but it is considerably less dangerous than many products you probably have under your kitchen sink, such as bleach or drain cleaner.
    Much of the condensate used to dilute bitumen is a liquid produced from North-western BC gas wells and transported to Fort McMurray by pipeline. Funny that we don,t hear of a lot of deaths from exposure to the product at the source or at the point of use. I simply do not believe that there were human fatalities at Kalamazoo from this source.
    To suffer sudden death from oil it would be necessary to drown in it as you could in water.
    There is a danger from extremely deadly hydrogen sulfide gas which is sometimes present in natural gas and oil. This is typically removed near the upstream source and would never be present in dangerous quantities in oil transported to the West coast. As an aside, H2S is produced by bacteria in waste streams such as septic tanks and sewers, often in dangerous quantities. The familiar rotten egg smell from pulp mills is H2S
    Having lived or worked, around or in the oil industry all my life, I can confidently say that any dangers to human life from exposure are vastly overstated.
    As with most chemicals, oil and gas must be handled with respect but life without chemicals would be pretty dismal.
    I was actually sprayed with sour (containing H2S) oil when a hose ruptured while unloading. Luckily there was a slight wind and I suffered no ill effects other than being very stinky until I was able to shower. I would not recommend it as a sport, however.


  12. Ron McMillan says:

    Here is a link to the spill two months ago which may be the most catastrophic spill ever, according to the Chinese government, which is scrambling to clean it up. They were carrying condensate and as you can see from the picture it is extremely flammable.

    Here is an msds (Material Safety Data Sheet) on condensate. It is very toxic indeed.

    Those ships leaving Vancouver can carry 356,626 barrels of dilbit and are a 250-metre-long Aframax class vessel. The Exxon Valdez spilled about 260,000 barrels, cost estimates range from 2 billion to 7 billion, and it took over 25 years for Exxon pay the absolute minimum amount they could.
    If there is a huge spill the oil company will lawyer up and the people of BC will end up paying for the mess. Because it hasn’t happened here so far only increases the odds of it happening in the future.
    Here is an article from the Globe and Mail about how the ships laden with dilbit and bunker fuel leave from the port of Vancouver.

    Can you see anything which could easily go wrong?


  13. Pingback: No, the Trudeau government did not ignore the science when approving the Trans Mountain Pipeline | A Chemist in Langley

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