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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Enbridge’s Oil Spill Response Plan (Doesn’t) Tell Us

With the election mere days away and oil tankers shaping up to be a major voting issue in B.C., it’s surprising that the Conservative party still supports introducing crude oil tankers to B.C.’s North Coast and Enbridge’s extremely controversial Northern Gateway project.

We found yet another reason why the Conservatives might want to rethink their position.

Well, it might not be quite that dramatic, but it's still pretty scary. Enbridge recently released their General Oil Spill Response Plan (GOSRP) for the Northern Gateway Project. Unfortunately, the plan is like an extended warranty – not worth the paper it’s written on. It’s thick on words. Thin on actions.

Plans look good on paper, but if history tells us anything, we are simply not prepared to deal with major environmental catastrophes. Case and point: Exxon Valdez, the Gulf oil spill, and Enbridge’s very own pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River last year. Residents in each region are still reeling in the aftereffects. Beaches and waterways are still polluted. Fishermen are still out of work.

Enbridge proposes “world class” safety and response measures, extensive charts and bulleted action items, but they don’t really tell us how they’re going to do anything. They’re not going to release their operational plans until six months prior to project commissioning, after project approval and too late to make an informed decision on their validity.

So what are some of their “world class” proposed response measures? Directly from the pages of the plan, here is my favourite:

“The primary response strategy for wildlife protection emphasizes controlling the release and spread of hydrocarbon at the source, to prevent or reduce environmental effects on potentially affected species and habitats.”

Gee Enbridge, good one. Reduce the oil spilled. What a brilliant idea.

In all seriousness, the GOSRP has some major inadequacies when it comes to explanations. While stating the obvious – e.g. we will clean up the spill – Enbridge has excluded some key information.

For example, Enbridge intends to rely heavily on containment booms for an oil spill in the ocean. The missing fine print: booms do not work in waters with currents over 1 knot (0.5 meters/second). Douglas Channel has maximum currents of up to 1.5 knots, Principe Channel of up to 3 knots and Otter Passage of up to 6 knots. These three passages make up the majority of the proposed tanker routes. This is not taking into account wind or waves, which only make booms even more incompetent. So, for the majority of the route, even with no wind of waves (an oddity on the North Coast), containment booms will not work.

In addition to booming, Enbridge proposes to use dispersants – the toxic chemicals BP sprayed all over the Gulf – to try to dissipate oil slicks. While dispersants may have a time and a place, there is currently no dispersant capability in British Columbia. What’s more, the devil themselves, Exxon Mobil, found that while dealing with very viscous heavy oil (which Enbridge is proposing to ship) dispersant use is usually not very effective.

In addition is the fact that shoreline cleanup techniques are absolutely abysmal for protecting shoreline habitats. Enbridge provides a summary chart of shoreline cleanup techniques. Aside from doing nothing (which yes, is actually an option,) the word “adverse” is in every single evaluation, and there are 300. Adverse = really bad, so why should we think this is okay? Enbridge even plans on gauging media attention to determine if and how they will respond.

Plans are great. Words do wonders. But until you can prove that they’re actually worth anything Enbridge, we’re not buying your warranty.

Katie Terhune is the Living Oceans Society's Energy Campaigner. To find out more about the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project and the risk of oil spills on the B.C. coast, please visit the Tankers section of our website.

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