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How Pipelines Carrying Bitumen From The Oilsands Could Threaten Sea Life

Bitumen from the oilsands could impact marine ecosystems in 15 ways, scientists say.
Rally against Kinder Morgan pipeline on Burnaby Mountain, 2014. Image: Mark Klotz/Flickr

In 2017, construction is set to begin on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will carry bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to the BC coast. It's shaping up to be a big year for pipeline projects, with fossil fuel-friendly Donald Trump coming into the White House (he's said he'd like to revive Keystone XL) and two projects, including Kinder Morgan, going ahead in Canada after receiving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent approval.


The potential impact of this type of extraction on coastal environments is sorely understudied. Although plenty of research has been done on the impacts of conventional oil spills in coastal environments, the effects of bitumen carried from the oilsands are virtually unknown, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

"Why is there so little research on the biological effects of bitumen?"

"When we look at [impacts] that are really specific to this particular industry—the oil sands—we know virtually nothing," said lead author Stephanie Green, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for Ocean Solutions, in a phone interview.

The oilsands are typically thought of as an "inland industry," she continued, but there are potentially serious "unrealized impacts for the oceans." And with pipelines carrying this stuff directly through coastal environments, we shouldn't ignore them.

Bitumen is a mined slurry of crude oil, sand, and clay, but also includes diluting materials to make it flow efficiently through pipelines. Scientists don't know a whole lot about the impact of these dilutents, partly because manufacturers aren't required to fully report their chemical makeup, according to the researchers.

"This is something that we're trying to get a handle on," Green said. "Why is there so little research on the biological effects of bitumen?"

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This study was a synthesis of more than 9,000 papers that have examined the consequences of oil sands development. It found that, while individual problems like ocean acidification or the impact on wildlife were taken into account, the cumulative effects of more than one of these issues occurring at once haven't been examined in any detail.

Green found 15 potential stressors that could arise during the movement of bitumen to the coast

Green found 15 potential stressors that could arise during the movement of bitumen to the West Coast and beyond, from the impacts of higher amounts of sea traffic, to the possible movement of non-native species along the proposed pipeline route.

"Biologists are particularly worried about the amount of noise pollution in the water that really disrupts things like feeding and the production and behavior of a whole range of marine species," said Green. For example, scientists and conservationists have expressed worry that the Kinder Morgan pipeline could drive an endangered population of orcas off the BC coast to extinction.

Trudeau and his current US counterpart, Barack Obama, seem to acknowledge that continued resource extraction will put marine environments under threat. The two recently announced partial bans on drilling for oil in the Arctic, and Trudeau's government unveiled a marine protection plan earlier this year. Even so, Trudeau has said he's ready to play ball with Trump on Keystone XL.

Green thinks that more research on the impacts of oilsands development on marine environments is critical—before development plans are made. "Ideally you would have a good understanding of risks to weigh into your decision-making process," she said.

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