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September 8, 2013

Canada's dirty oil

Scott Stockdale

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With people from all over the world coming to Canada because they have a vested interest in developing pipelines to transport Canada's heavy oil from Alberta, primarily westward to the Pacific coast - and also possibly eastward to Ontario and Quebec - is it any wonder that environmental concerns are not the primary concerns of these investors?

Speaking at a recent public lecture entitled Pipelines Through Paradise: a panel discussion on Alberta oil, sponsored by the University of Waterloo Faculty of Science and Department of Biology, Peter Hodson, professor in the Department of Biology at Queen's University, said that when environmental assessments were done on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta the British Columbia coast , there was no consideration given to the effects of an oil spill on the species of fish that would be exposed.

Because the pipeline would transport 525,000 bbls/d across six watersheds, over 800 crossings of streams, with fish, over 11,000 kilometres of waterways, including five of the largest rivers in Western Canada, Dr. Hodson said the effects of an oil spill on the fish population would be catastrophic.

“Large amounts of oil will get into the water columns causing 100 per cent mortality over 50 per cent of the rivers' area. And there has been no consideration of the delayed toxicity, including life cycle effects such as photo toxicity.”

Phototoxicity is a chemically induced skin irritation – similar to severe sunburn - requiring light. The involved chemical may enter into the skin by topical administration or it may reach the skin via systemic circulation following ingestion. The oil particles in the water are "photoactive", which means they are able to absorb photons and, subsequently, to turn the absorbed energy into photoreactivity.

Dr. Hodson lists Pacific lamprey, salmon, eulachon and prickly sculpins among the fish at risk in the event of an oil spill.  He cited tests on fish from previous oil spills which show blue sac disease, whereby the embryo glows blue.

“This results in head and eye deformation and spinal curvature. There is a brief 48 hour period in early fertilization when concentrations from a typical oil spill will kill the embryo.”

He explained that small molecular oil particles dissolve in the water and circulate while heavy molecular particles act as a delivery system for toxic materials.”

Moreover, citing a study of the August 1, 2000 oil spill on the Peace River in Chetwynd B.C., Dr. Hodson said oil spills also destroy fish habitats.

“A huge accumulation of deadwood anchors the sediment, which allows the river to flood and return to normal. Without the deadwood (destroyed by oil spills) there is a major structural change in the river. It destroyed the fish habitat for 50 kilometers downstream. There was still oil in the water five years later.”

Along with contamination of the spawning grounds, and destruction of habitat, Dr. Hodson said oil spills also affect the long term recruitment of species, which affects the diversity of the fish.

Subsequently, Dr. Stella Swanson, of Swanson Environmental Studies, in the biology department at the University of Waterloo, said a risk governance system that includes formal and informal processes and institutions that guide and restrict the pipeline project is needed to determine such things as the likelihood of a pipeline rupture and how large a potential oil spill may be.

She added that there is a lot of outrage about the proposed pipeline which results in no meaningful discussion and low trust. Moreover, as we've seen in the case against t global warming, she said science is open to interpretation.  It appears to be a case of “let the reader beware.”

“You have scientists saying, 'Yes, it sinks (oil),' and others saying, 'No, it doesn't.' Because of the uncertainty of science, you get different interpretations. Science must be accountable and trustworthy.”

However, to be trustworthy, the scientists themselves must be objective and, as Dr. Swanson noted, this may not be the reality of the situation.

“Increasingly we're getting industry funding (for research). In fact, it is a requirement in many cases. This contributes to decreased trust. Can we expect industry to represent the same interests as the rest of us?”

Moreover, Dr. Swanson said scientists need to have access to decision makers so they can make an honest assessment of the consequences of making the wrong decisions.

“They must recognize and appreciate the links between science and values. Social, cultural and spiritual values are involved. The entire route has high cultural and ecological value ... There is deep frustration. This is a large resource project and there's a desire for discussion.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Swanson said that although Prime Minister Harper has often insisted that his government is going to make decisions based on science, the federal government held a policy conference, during which it drew up guidelines to streamline the approval process for the Northern Gateway pipeline.

“The impact of the regulatory changes of the Harper government is such that they changed the regulations so the oil companies can get the pipeline.”

She added that the Harper government's regulatory changes also resulted in the loss of entire sections of the Fisheries and Oceans departments.

In Canada, the National Energy Board oversees more than 70,000 km of oil and gas pipelines, and nearly half of those pipelines are over 30 years old. Fourteen spills were reported in 2010 and 2011, and Canadians are concerned about the effects of current and future pipeline spills on their land, water, and food.

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