Recently, three pipeline failures in Alberta have been reported. Two have involved spills of conventional crude oil. The third and most recent was a spill of diluted bitumen at Elk Point from an Enbridge pipeline. Although no oil spills are good, this one is particularly bad because of the corrosive and lasting effects the diluent and bitumen will have on the environment. Little has been reported by the local media on the special effects of this mixture although CBC radio did cover it on its “The Current” program.
We may learn about the effects of a diluted bitumen spill from rural Michigan where a ruptured Enbridge pipeline spilled 843,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in June, 2010.
Unlike conventional crude oil, diluted bitumen is a mixture of unrefined bitumen that is often heavier than water and a diluent that usually consists of volatile solvents like naphtha or natural gas condensate that allow the thick bitumen to be pumped through the pipeline.
In the Michigan spill area, volatile portions of the diluent containing toxic fumes of benzene and toluene evaporated into the atmosphere causing local inhabitants to suffer nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughing and fatigue.
When the lighter chemicals evaporated, the bitumen portion sank to the bottom and became mixed with river sediments. Conventional clean-up equipment such as skimmers and oil booms proved useless in recovering the large amounts of submerged oil that covers 200 acres of river bottom.
As stewards of our oil sands, we Albertans must reduce the possibility of this kind of spill by minimizing the amount of bitumen piped out of Alberta. This can be done by upgrading bitumen in Alberta and only exporting synthetic crude oil. Not only would this benefit the environment but it would also add billions of dollars to Alberta’s economy because synthetic crude oil sells for a large premium over bitumen.
Leader, Alberta Social Credit Party