WWF-Canada Blog:

Sometimes “World-Class” sucks

This past long-weekend I did two things.  First, I tried to digest the disappointing announcement from our Federal Government. The one that confirmed its intent to weaken the environmental assessment process for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, despite the environmental risks the project might pose to one of Canada’s ecological treasures.  Second (perhaps to distract myself from the first), I watched the Olympics.  (The Canadian Women’s Soccer Team was spectacular and not even the incompetence of the officiating can change that).

And that’s when it occurred to me.  Like everyone else, I’d like to see Canada stand on top of the podium as much as possible in 2012.  But, outside the realm of sport, our country seems to be competing hard for a title that no one on Earth should hope to win:  a gold medal in pretending it can clean up oil spills.

A “world class” oil spill clean-up would recover 15% of the oil.  Is that a risk worth taking here? (C) Andrew S. Wright

I’d say it’s a pretty dubious distinction.  Our human ability to retrieve oil floating on top of the ocean is fairly pathetic.  You see, we basically have three techniques:  (1) in situ burning (which roughly involves piling up as much oil as possible in front of a boom and setting it on fire)  (2) mechanical recovery (scooping it up) and (3) using chemical dispersants to break it down (which adds more toxins to the ocean ecosystem).  None of these countermeasures is goof-proof.  The offshore environment is often too harsh to even attempt any of them.  And, as journalist Vivian Luk demonstrated in her article yesterday, human error can undermine all three.  World-class performance for “success” of a clean-up operation is recovering about 15% of the oil.  In the case of the BP Horizon Spill, it was closer to 3%.  For the Exxon Valdez, the one closest to home, it was 8%.  When it comes to oil spill clean-up – world-class sucks!

Now, that’s if the oil is on top of the water.  When we talk about the Northern Gateway Pipeline, we’re not talking about oil at all.  We’re talking about diluted bitumen—a combination of diluent compounds and bitumen.  And, as most scientists have pointed out, this stuff doesn’t float.  It sinks.  Once bitumen drops down into the water column, it’s almost impossible to find, much less clean up.  If you remember 1988 (good year for music, bad year for oil spills) you might remember the Nestucca incident.  5,500 barrels of heavy fuel oil spilled off the shore of Grays Harbor, Washington.  It sank out of sight and no one could track it.  Two weeks later, it washed up on the shores of Vancouver Island— 175 kilometers away.  The toll on sea birds gives a window into the havoc: over 9,000 of them died.

Another important difference between diluted bitumen and heavy fuel oil is that when diluted bitumen spills, the “diluting” compounds are released as toxic gases (the kind that made a lot of people sick in Kalamazoo).  So not only will people not be able to see or track the spill.  Chances are, it will take them days to even start trying.

In the context of this fantastic record and technical ability, it kind of makes you wonder what counts as “world class” when it comes to oil spills.  The answer seems clear.  History will bestow victory on those countries that successfully protect their most precious places from oil spills.  Not those that imagine they can do “the best possible job” cleaning them up.

If we really want to be world-class, we can start by identifying those places where spills will never be allowed to happen.  The Great Bear Sea is one of those places.


Stand with us in saying Great Bear is no place to risk an oil spill.  Become a Canadian for the Great Bear.