Thursday, June 7, 2012

Al Jazeera Reports On The Enbridge Pipeline

It would be great if we could get some in-depth reporting on the issues surrounding the Alberta tar/bitumen sands  from the Canadian media (from some place other than the completely terrific Tyee that is). For now however, we have to rely on organizations like Al Jazeera to provide us with the kind of quality reportage we rightly deserve.

This story is about the First Nations people, who along with many other communities in British Columbia and Alberta, find themselves caught in the middle:
...between Canada's expanding oil industry, home to the world's third-largest oil reserves; and the rapidly growing economies in East Asia, particularly China.
As per usual there's lots there to digest including a debunking of the idea that ordinary Canadians will benefit via job creation.
...the majority of jobs would be short-term employment in the pipeline's construction. Only a few hundred long-term jobs are expected, primarily at the marine terminal in Kitimat. Critics of Northern Gateway say far more jobs in fishing and tourism are at stake if there is a pipeline breach or oil spill.
There's an accompanying article by Kavitha Chekuru to go with the video that you should go read as well.

I do have one caveat about the reporting in this story and that is the interview with the Enbridge official, who when asked about what would happen if there were a spill, answers that their response in the event of this impossibility, would be "very robust." He of course never outlines what the heck that means and the reporter does not press him on the issue or the potential for catastrophic destruction to eco-systems and an entire way of life. Off-gassing of the bitumen after a spill is never mentioned either. No real complaints though, as it's unlikely there would have been a straight answer and besides, they're the best we've got!

In  case you'd like to learn more. I've posted Al Jazeera's documentary about the tar sands, "To The Last Drop," here.

What A Bitumen Spill In Vancouver Harbour Would Look Like

Mitchell Anderson over at The Tyee  has thoughtfully put together the scenario that would likely unfold in the event of a bitumen spill in Vancouver harbour. Something never mentioned in Canada's rapidly deteriorating media, but obviously important, is how such a spill would affect the residents of Vancouver:
The public health emergency and potential evacuation of large parts of the city might easily overshadow the more well known consequences of an oil spill as local authorities struggle to move hundreds of thousands of people out of harm's way.

Sadly, none of this is far-fetched:
Kinder Morgan is proposing to more than double the pipeline capacity from Alberta to Burnaby by 2017 to 750,000 barrels per day. This would result in up to 20 tankers per month moving through Vancouver harbour. Each of these ships must transit under the Second Narrows bridge during a 20-minute high tide window, with less than two metres of under-keel clearance.
If a loaded tanker became grounded in the channel, assist tugs would have little time to free the vessel before it became perched on a portion of the hull in a fast falling tide, as the 20-km long Indian Arm fjord drains towards the ocean.
A 20 minute high tide window? If that doesn't scare the crap out of you, check to see if you still have a pulse. It gets worse:
...when bitumen spilled into the Kalamazoo river these chemicals began off-gassing into the local area, acutely impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of residents living within a mile of the spill. People reported nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, headaches, coughing and dizziness from exposure to chemicals such as benzene and toluene, which are known carcinogens.
Sounds terrible huh? It actually gets worse as the description for one common variety of diluted bitumen reads as follows:
"High vapour concentrations are irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; may cause headaches and dizziness; may be anesthetic and may cause other central nervous system effects, including death. Hydrogen sulphide gas may be released. Hydrogen sulphide may cause irritation, breathing failure, coma and death, without necessarily any warning odour being sensed. Avoid breathing vapours or mists."
So you'll be fine as long as you can avoid breathing. As far as those pipelines that are to carry the bitumen are concerned, Mitchell has the scoop on that too:
Bitumen is too thick to pump through a pipeline so it must be diluted with a variety of volatile and toxic chemicals imported from elsewhere around the world. This mixture is called "diluted bitumen" and is more abrasive, corrosive and acidic than conventional crude, and typically must be piped under higher temperatures and pressures -- raising the risk of pipeline failures.
Now put that all together and understand that a spill is an eventuality, a matter of when not if, as tar sands producers are shipping more and more unrefined bitumen to be refined elsewhere. Go read for yourself and then pass it on. We're nuts if we let any of this happen.

The Tyee has created a visual explanation of how this might unfold.