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Washington Not Ready For Implications Of B.C. Pipeline Expansion

By Ashley Ahearn, NWPR, April 13 2012

Canadian pipeline operators are considering expanding the line that brings oil from the Alberta Oil Sands to Western British Columbia. Environmentalists and others say that raises the potential for oil spills in Northwest waters and, it involves a different type of oil.

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Right now the Trans Mountain pipeline moves 300,000 barrels of oil per day to an export terminal near Vancouver, BC. If the Canadian government approves the expansion that amount could almost triple. More oil in the pipeline means more oil loaded onto large tanker ships. Those ships will eventually head out the Strait of Juan De Fuca to the Pacific.

Kinder Morgan is the company that owns the Trans Mountain pipeline. It says traffic could increase by up to 30 tankers per month.That has environmentalists and coastal residents concerned.

But here’s the part that’s even more concerning. The stuff coming out of the Alberta Oil Sands is not your typical Alaska crude oil.

Ron Goodman: “It’s quite thick. It’s sort of a peanut butter. It’s very very heavy oil.”

That’s Ron Goodman. He’s retired now but he used to work for Exxon’s subsidiary company in Canada doing environmental research and spill response planning.

Goodman is talking about a type of oil called Bitumen. That’s the stuff coming out of the Alberta Oil Sands. Bitumen is made up of carbon molecules, just like crude oil, but its molecules are much bigger and more complex. That makes it more like peanut butter and less like jelly.

Ron Goodman: “And if it spills on water it will tend to just form sort of heavy almost like asphalt pavement type mats. It will probably go to the bottom as little clumps.”

That’s different from a spill of crude oil. When crude spills it tends to float on the surface in what’s called a sheen. Then responders corral that oil using boom and remove it with skimmers and pumps. People in the Northwest haven’t really had to deal with heavier oil that might sink.

Right now the Washington Department of Ecology doesn’t know how much bitumen might be moving through the region’s waters, or how it would affect the environment if there were a spill. Curt Hart is a spokesman for the DOE.

Curt Hart: “Oil spills just in general concern us a whole bunch but to have something that may not act like we would expect it to act and then not be able to respond well and have this thing be in our waters that may represent a more dire threat than we anticipated, that’s something that keeps us up at night.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is putting together new models for oil spill responses and plans to add Bitumen to their list of products to study. But right now, they don’t have a specific strategy for how to respond to this substance either.

Not all the tankers coming from British Columbia carry Bitumen. So the first question would be: how much of the thick heavy stuff is going through Washington waters?

I asked Frank Holmes. He’s with the Western States Petroleum Association. It’s a trade association that represents oil companies.

Frank Holmes: “That is company specific competitive information that would not be publicly available.”

Ok, so we don’t know how much bitumen is being shipped through Washington waters. But there is evidence that bitumen can sink, instead of floating on the surface like a normal oil spill. So I asked Holmes if the oil companies he represents have specific spill response plans for Bitumen.

Frank Holmes: “That’s a question that I haven’t really researched so I’m unfamiliar with that concept but certainly that’s something that would be addressed.”

Environment Canada is conducting research on bitumen. Washington doesn’t have any spill response plans to specifically deal with this substance.

But in the deep waters of Puget Sound, oil that sinks to the bottom instead of floating on the surface presents a new cleanup challenge.

Copyright 2012 KUOW

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