At a hearing in Prince Rupert, British Columbia (BC) on February 6, experts testifying on behalf of Enbridge in support of the Northern Gateway pipeline, claim that diluted bitumen shipped to a port in British Columbia will not sink to the ocean floor, since the diluted version of bitumen is lighter than water. This disputes the claims made by opponents
of the pipeline project, which point to the disaster on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
The Northern Gateway Pipeline Project
is a proposal to build a pipeline from Bruderheim, Alberta to a port in Kitimat, BC. The main purpose of the project is to transport Alberta oilsands bitumen crude to the west coast for transfer to Asian markets.
The pipeline project has become very controversial and in large part is an emotional issue for residents of BC. It is opposed by environmentalists, native groups and has caused grave concern for those worried about the sensitive coast and increased tanker presence in a narrow Douglas Channel. BC's premier has made it part of her election platform in a quest for re-election. While the opposing New Democrats are outright against the construction of the project, Christy Clark was looking for a share of oil royalty revenues, but the sentiment of the population has since turned against the project.
Alberta's Premier Alison Redford has been eying alternate solutions to bring Alberta oil to market, including a proposal for an east-west pipeline
to the east coast and the Irving refinery in New Brunswick. It appears that her attempt to develop a National Energy Strategy (NES) has gained some momentum with the majority of provincial premiers warming to the idea.
The Premiers of Alberta and New Brunswick say that an east-west pipeline that would carry Alberta bitumen oil to the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick is viable and could be constructed without public funds.
To drive home its point that diluted bitumen does not sink in water, Enbridge has taken on an offshore oil spill response plan,
which it says was taken on voluntarily. It says that this plan will not require the remove oil from the ocean floor. This is a disputed fact by environmentalists, who claim that Enbridge is lying through their teeth.
"I don't know if it's possible to drive a stake through the heart of this concept of sinking oil, but every one of these liquids that we're talking about is no different from any other liquid we have on Earth," said Al Maki, one of 10 experts answering questions under oath this week.
Experience and lab tests show diluted bitumen weighs less than water, Maki said.
"It is an immutable fact of physics that they will float. They simply cannot sink in water."
That claim brought lawyers representing six First Nations and environmental groups to their feet to dispute the statement and demand a copy of the report cited by the company.
There is no scientific consensus on the behaviour of diluted bitumen in a real-life spill situation.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information last summer included a request from the head of the Fisheries and Oceans' Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research section for further study -- a request that appears to have been denied.
The National Review Board is currently holding hearings on the effects of an oil spill off shore an its effects on the environment. The board is required to complete its finding by the end of the year.
While Alberta points to the economic benefits for BC and Canada as a whole, for BC the issue is one of the environment and Enbridge's past safety record. The government of Canada will have the final say, While the proposal may be approved in the end, it could end up in the courts for years to come.
The "Idle no more" movement has brought native issues to the front and center of national headlines. With BC and natives not on side of the issue the debate on this issue will continue. In all likelihood the federal government will not be able to press the pipeline issue. Federal opposition parties are not in favor of the project.
The east-west pipeline, in the end, may be the only feasible solution to bring Alberta bitumen crude to market. The approval of the XL Keystone pipeline, which requires a recommendation from the US State Department and approval by President Obama is also up in the air and may be rejected.
Alison Redford in her 2012 budget overestimated oil royalty revenue, a point not lost on Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who in an interview on Global TV yesterday said that Redford should have known that $100 a barrel was a reach.
The debate will continue and there will most certainly be more arguments about the weight of diluted bitumen and its ability to float or sink on water.