Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Tanker Campaign Update

March 21, 2013

The Enbridge Northern Gateway hearings provided some rare moments of entertainment and insight. We learned, for example, that a chair is heavier than water. Our counsel had been asking about the likelihood of bitumen sinking in water and this was but one of the amusing attempts to duck a direct answer.

On the subject of diluted bitumen (dilbit) and its fate following a spill, we learned from Enbridge witnesses that it is “an immutable fact” that dilbit will float on salt water. Our experts disagree:  tar sands bitumen has been tested for decades and it is well established that it easily submerges or becomes ‘overwashed’ by the ocean, making it difficult to detect and doubly difficult to corral and remove from the water. Once spilled in the ocean, where it contacts sediments and organic matter in the water, it sticks to those particles and becomes increasingly heavier, ultimately sinking and/or stranding on shorelines.

You would think that in a situation where Enbridge says ‘black’ and Living Oceans (among many others) says ‘white’, the Government of Canada would step in to provide expert evidence of its own that might settle the matter. And if you were listening closely to the announcement from Ottawa on March 18th, you might have heard something about how they were going to study tanker safety and in particular, dilbit.

“Going to” study dilbit? The truth is that the federal government has been analyzing the properties of bitumen and other heavy oils for decades. Studies have focused on dilbit products from the Alberta tarsands since at least 2008 but the government has gagged the scientists doing the work and withheld the results from the Enbridge Joint Review Panel.

If you do that kind of thing in a court of law, the judge is entitled to assume that you hid the evidence because it hurts your case.

Ottawa’s tanker safety announcement was the first sign that the government realizes it needs to manage public expectations about tanker safety, a fact for which Living Oceans can claim some credit. The announcements—both tanker safety and the appointment of a First Nations envoy-- could be all to the good. Or they could be more window-dressing designed to backstop a communications strategy that will ultimately go like this: ”We’ve responded to their every concern; they’re just being unreasonable. We’ve done all that can be expected and now we’ve just got to go ahead and push this project through.”

It’s pretty clear to those of us living here in B.C. that on the subject of oil tankers, ‘no’ means ‘no’ and opinions aren’t going to change because regulations change or some more coin is spread around the province. So this week’s announcement is for the rest of the country, where the issue doesn’t figure quite so high on the agenda and there’s a willingness to assume that the federal government is working in the best interests of all Canadians. Don’t believe it, Canada.