Why I oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway, part 2

This is the second in a series of posts detailing my opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway, reasons therefore, and deconstructing some of the arguments in favour of the project.

Oil, but not in the conventional sense

In the lore of the oil boom that delivered prosperity to the Arabian Peninsula, it is said that simply by plunging a stake into the sweltering sand, one could elicit a minor eruption of fluid crude, gushing forth from the desert like water through the punctured hull of a canoe. By contrast, Alberta’s vast petroleum reserves are much more reluctant to emerge.

Unlike the black nectar of affluence beneath the Arabian dunes, the Albertan bitumen is stubborn, viscous and suffused with sand and clay. To obtain it requires far more than an adroit perforation of the soil; indeed, the Athabasca region is pockmarked by massive open-pit mines, visible from space. Only in the past two decades has it become remotely economic to extricate the oil from its grainy substrate, and even so, the net returns have just recently surpassed the break-even point – and that is without accounting for the enormous yet uninsurable threat a spill poses to the ecosystem.

A truck hauls a load of bitumen-rich sand and clay from an open pit mine near Fort McMurray, Alta. Image c/o alexabboud/Flickr

The spectacular amount of labour, energy and water needed to acquire this resource is well documented, as is the extraordinary level of atmospheric and terrestrial pollution the extraction process creates. Similarly well advertised is the necessity of diluents – typically a natural gas or a petroleum condensate – required to siphon the globular sludge through a pipeline. This condensate is sourced from the world market, according to Enbridge, including Australia, the United States and the same Middle Eastern nations deemed unsavoury petroleum purveyors by oil sands advocates like Ezra Levant, and the entire Ethical Oil organization. Enbridge will buy from whomever offers the best price for the necessary formula; this market is free, and unencumbered by any qualms about “ethics.”

Further, as oil sands production increases, the insatiable quest for diluents is liable to elicit a proportionate rise in the number of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations worldwide – and the environmental and human costs thereof.

By the way, if your tap water is flammable, I advise you to purchase bottled water.

The end result, once the admixture of Albertan oil and diluent is complete, is a toxic substance called diluted bitumen (DilBit), that sinks in water (yes, even in dense, cold seawater), and in the event of a spill, can only be deterged through the use of noxious chemicals like benzene.

Compared to the crude located off Alaska’s northern shelf, which Bruce Strachan mentions in his editorial piece, and which sullied the northern state’s coastline following the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, diluted bitumen is far more hazardous, far more destructive, and considerably more difficult and costly to clean up.

And just in case you were wondering, the social and ecosystemic repercussions of Exxon Valdez continue to this day in towns like Cordova, A.K. If the consequences of a spill of standard, buoyant crude oil were that severe and long-lasting, imagine how much more deleterious the impact of a diluted bitumen spill in northern British Columbia’s rivers or marine inlets would be.

Enbridge’s corporate responsibility

To be fair to Enbridge, the corporation hasn’t been resting on its laurels where safety standards are concerned – though it took some prodding from politicians and government agencies to persuade company brass to make improvements.

Following a June 10 report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board that decried the organization’s sluggish and inadequate response to a horrendous 2010 oil spill on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, pointed criticism from current B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and hardheaded opposition from the man likely to be the province’s next premier – New Democrat leader Adrian Dix – Enbridge finally announced plans to upgrade its safety apparatus, thicken the sheath of the proposed pipeline, and increase the frequency of inspections well beyond industry standards. And while this may help to allay fears of a spill on land, it does nothing to assuage residents of B.C.’s northern coast, including First Nations who inhabit that region. Why? Because Enbridge’s responsiblity for the hydrocarbons pumping through the pricey artery ends at the ocean terminal in Kitimat, hundreds of kilometers from the open ocean. And it is in this region, many detractors agree, that the danger is greatest.

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