Northern Gateway: Why environmentalists believe it’s not worth the risk

Environmental impact of the Northern Gateway pipeline project
With the Northern Gateway pipeline one step closer to becoming a reality, many concerned about the possible environmental impacts say it's not worth the risk. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

TORONTO – With the proposed Northern Gateway Project one step closer to becoming a reality, some may be left wondering about the potential environmental impact.

The twin pipeline, travelling 1,177 km across Alberta and British Columbia, will transport bitumen, a thick form of oil that needs to be diluted with light petroleum oil. It comes from Alberta’s oil sands. When it is diluted, it is called dilbit.

This dilbit will end up in a terminal in Kitimat, B.C., and will then be loaded onto tankers that will travel the Douglas Channel, eventually heading out to the Pacific Ocean, and, its advocates say, open up the Canadian market.

READ MORE: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway – Things are about to get interesting

WATCH: Is the Northern Gateway pipeline good for Canada?

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But many scientists and environmentalists are afraid of what an oil spill could mean to the environment.

On May 26, 250 Canadian scientists – as well as some from around the world including the United States, Switzerland, and Australia – signed a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging him to reject the Joint Review Panel’s assessment of the Northern Gateway Project. The 12-page letter cited a concern over the perceived “flawed analysis of the risks and benefits to British Columbia’s environment and society.”

One of their concerns was the failure by the panel to conduct external reviews.

It’s this lack of external review that has led the group called Concerned Professional Engineers, located in British Columbia, to publish a white paper in March detailing its concerns over the risk of  an oil spill.

Both groups seriously question whether or not the economic benefits are worth the risk to the environment should something go wrong.

Dinara Willington, vice president of research at the Canadian Energy Research Institute, has studied the economic benefits of the Northern Gateway Project. Her study examined at length the economic benefits.

READ MORE: Northern Gateway – 3 charts show how important oil is to economy

“More than half of GDP impact will occur in British Columbia –$4.7 billion,” Dinara told Global News.

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But for many people in that province, that isn’t worth the risk. There has been some debate as to whether or not dilbit will sink or float if it spills. If it floats, it’s easier to clean.

READ MORE: Northern Gateway pipeline project – Where is support strongest?

“Once oil spills, it’s other damages that can occur other than it sinking,” Merv Fingas, an independent environmental consultant told Global News.

“It might sink in fresh water, but not typically in salt water,” Fingas said. “However, if it interacts with particles and other heavier materials it could sink in salt water,” Fingas said. The particles could include clay or other minerals.

Andrew Weaver, the Green Party MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, B.C., said that if dilbit were to spill in salt water that had suspended particles, it would be of great concern to the environment.

“What happens there is it either sinks or creates tar balls,” he told Global News. “What we know is that in many of these coastal waters, particularly where we are in Fraser River…there is no shortage of suspended sediments in the actual water column.”

Weaver pointed to an Enbridge pipeline that ruptured in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010, spilling 3.3 million litres of oil into the Kalamazoo River. The bitumen sank and efforts to clean it have lasted more than three years.

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Fingas said that the effects of an oil spill would be just as devastating as other oil spills. “I think the unknown characteristics of this have led a lot of people to be sort of confused about what might happen. It seems as though this is extraordinary, but it’s just the same.”

WATCH: Northern Gateway decision: Can public opinion be turned around?

Depending on nature

Weaver believes that British Columbians, known for their eco-tourism, have spoken loudly about their concerns. It’s not just the wildlife, but the coastal waters – where people live, where people depend on nature – that concerns him most.

“We have a company that’s decided that it wants to ship diluted bitumen, despite the fact that virtually every First Nation in the area, the people of Kitimat, who are at the terminus of this, and something of the order of 80 per cent of British Columbians, including the present government, including the official opposition, and the B.C. Green Party, all of us have said no,” Weaver said.

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“What about no, do you not get?”

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Northern Gateway has been challenged by First Nations groups and Kitimat residents. Some of the concerns include impacts the pipeline would have on wildlife across both Alberta and B.C.

The proposed tanker route leaving from Kitimat, B.C. is shown on a map Thursday, Sept, 19, 2013.
The proposed tanker route leaving from Kitimat, B.C. is shown on a map Thursday, Sept, 19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

And if there were to be an oil spill, there is the concern about how one would clean up it up.

In an emailed response from Environment Canada, spokesperson Mark Johnson said, should an oil spill occur, “All available countermeasures to respond…will be evaluated with the objective of achieving the best possible benefit for the environment.

“Only dispersants that provide a net environmental benefit would be approved.”

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But the argument from environmentalists is that the risk of an oil spill just isn’t worth it.

“Nobody wants oil tankers in our coastal waters,” Weaver said.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

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