Anatomy of an oil spill
In theory, stringent rules mean even the tiniest spill or pipeline damage is reported and dealt with immediately, with checks built in to ensure compliance. In practice, it doesn’t always work that way.
Below is a brief crash course in Albertan oil spills – where they happen, who’s in charge and what comes next.
Behind spill numbers
There were 700 crude oil and bitumen spills in Alberta in 2012, according to the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
Overall the number of spills occurring in the province annually is going down. But there’ve been some exceptionally large and damaging spills in the last two years.
Alberta’s second-biggest spill in 37 years was in 2011, when 28,755 barrels of crude spilled from a Plains Midstream pipeline into muskeg near Peace River in April, 2011.
A May 2012 spill from a Pace Oil & Gas pipeline dumped 22,365 barrels near Rainbow Lake in Northern Alberta.
The province’s biggest-ever crude oil spill was in December, 1980, when more than 41,500 barrels of oil spilled from a Pembina pipeline into flowing water east of Valleyview.
These are more the exception than the rule: Almost half of all crude oil spills are 1000 litres or less.
The map below illustrates the number of crude oil spills in Alberta since 1975.
Hotspots for crude oil spills include the Drayton Valley, the area near Lloydminster along the Saskatchewan border, around the Wainwright military base and near Swan Hills, in northern Alberta.
The province’s oil spill capital, according to the provincial regulator’s numbers, is about 50 kilometres north of Bonnyville, where Canadian Natural Resources Limited has its large Wolf Lake central treating facility. There have been 157 spills in there in 37 years.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. declined to comment for this article.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, areas with a high concentration of spills also tend to have a high concentration of pipelines running through them. Exactly how closely the two coincide is hard to say, though: The board doesn’t make detailed pipeline maps publicly available – at least, not without a fee of a few thousand dollars.
Pipelines are the biggest source of spills. About 47 per cent of Alberta’s spills are from some kind of pipeline, such as water, natural gas, crude oil or some combination of these in a “multiphase” pipeline.
Here’s a brief breakdown of what happens when oil spills in Alberta:
Everyone shipping hydrocarbons through Alberta pipelines is required to have automatic leak detection systems that they set off alarms if they spot something amiss and then shut the line down.
But sometimes a member of the public spots the leak first.
And while the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board expects companies to self-report incidents, it doesn’t track how often the alerts actually come from someone else.
In some cases, the alarm will go off but the pipe won’t be shut down – in some cases, as with the 2011 Rainbow Pipeline spill, for hours.
The company is also required to tell the Energy Resources Conservation Board immediately if their pipe gets so much as a scratch – even if nothing spills out.
They also have to report all non-pipeline incidents that meet one or more of the following conditions: more than 200 litres of material was released, spilled material goes off the land leased by the oil company, or if the spill might have an “off-site impact on the environment or human health.”
Typically, says board spokesperson Cara Tobin, they call ERCB after ensuring that workers are safe, which can be up to an hour after detecting the spill.
And, while several companies now face charges for failing to tell the board about spills in a “timely” manner, there’s no set time frame for calling.
Board inspectors won’t attend every spill site: They evaluate its seriousness based on what spilled, where and how much of it, and will then send someone to help hammer out a response plan.
For spills deemed not so serious, neither Alberta Environment nor the ERCB attends; for serious spills, both will likely be on-site, with the Environment ministry directing cleanup and remediation.
(The Environment ministry wouldn’t say how many spill sites it attends, but it sends staff in person to about 10 per cent of all emergencies.)
Cleanup directives can include requirements on how things get cleaned up, and how fast. Sometimes regulators decide it would actually do more environmental damage to clean up every tiny bit of oil than to let it degrade naturally, as light crude in particular will do.
The company must prove it did the cleanup work by sending documentation such as invoices, photos and reports to the ministry.
Compensation and cleanup
The company usually compensates a landowner for spill- or cleanup-related damages up to $25,000. If the two disagree on the amount, they can go to the Alberta Surface Rights Board for mediation or a full hearing.
How much damage a spill does depends on what’s spilled, where it’s spilled and what the weather’s like.
Spill bitumen in the winter, it’ll hardly move – just slump out, like molasses. Unless, that is, the spill’s in the water, in which case the bitumen sinks, making it tougher to hem in and skim out.
“It all depends on temperature,” says Trever Miller, response coordinator with spill cleanup consulting company SWAT. His crews have been across the province, in the Gulf of Mexico and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The impact of even small amounts of apparently less harmful substances – salty wastewater, for example – is hugely dependent on terrain and the area: If the terrain’s marshy or porous, or if there are humans or fauna nearby, the produced water can have a much greater impact and be much trickier to clean up.
So Miller’s crews need to be flexible.
“You’re never going to be able to come up with a set procedure. … If someone were able to cookie-cutter a spill, it would already have been done.”