National Energy Board refuses to accept study on diluted bitumen

By Tessa Vikander, The Georgia Straight, December 23, 2015.

One of the most important reports submitted to the National Energy Board’s review of Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion has been denied, according to a biologist with one of the hearing’s intervenors.

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Living Oceans Society, both intervenors in the hearing, submitted a motion to the NEB on December 9 asking the board to accept a new study on diluted bitumen (also called dilbit), although the deadline for evidence had passed six months previous. The study, Spills of Diluted Bitumen From Pipelines, was released by the Washington, D.C.–based National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on December 8.

The City of Vancouver signed in support of the request, as did the Upper Nicola Band, the Tsawout First Nation, and two other nonprofits. On December 17, the NEB ruled against the request (PDF).

Raincoast biologist Misty MacDuffee told the Georgia Straight by phone that the U.S. report is “the most authoritative review on dilbit that’s ever been undertaken”. She said the study concludes that dilbit behaves very differently than other crude oils when spilled, therefore requiring a different spill response.

MacDuffee said such a response has yet to be established by B.C. officials. “Dismissing a report of this magnitude is what leaves the public with a lack of faith in the scientific rigour of the NEB’s process,” she said. “It’s chosen expediency over the rights, needs, and the safety of the public.”

NEB spokesperson Tara O’Donovan countered that although the NEB did not accept the study as evidence for the hearing, it’s still possible that the study’s conclusions will affect future NEB regulations. She said the NEB uses “the most recent scientific information in terms of how we regulate going forward”.

“It’s not like we just make a decision and then that’s the end of it for us,” O’Donovan said. “We have conditions that apply throughout the life cycle of the project that the company must meet in order to continue to operate.”

In its ruling, the NEB admitted that the report is relevant and the late filing is justified. However, it denied the application because the timing would be unfair to Trans Mountain, which wouldn’t have enough time to respond to the new evidence.

O’Donovan said that in the case of a late filing, “the board has the option of asking the [federal] minister for more time, and then it would be up to the minister to decide.” In this instance, she said, they didn’t ask for extra time because the “board feels it already has evidence on the record related to this issue”.

But opponents say this evidence is not enough. Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans, said the evidence currently on the NEB’s record is “one expert against another expert”.

The NAS report combines knowledge from multiple scientific fields, Wristen said, and it “looked carefully at not just lab work but what has actually happened in the environment with spills…it [dilbit] is a novel substance and it’s behaving differently.”

Dilbit is bitumen diluted with hydrocarbons, a mixture that travels easily through pipelines. Uncertainty about its properties attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress, which asked the private, nonprofit NAS to do a multidisciplinary study on the mixture. According to Wristen, the report’s conclusion that dilbit reacts differently than other crude oils “is completely at odds with the information that Kinder Morgan [and wholly-owned subsidiary Trans Mountain have] put before the National Energy Board”.

Wristen said the study concludes that within a matter of hours or days of an ocean spill, dilbit separates into its original components. The hydrocarbons evaporate, and the air around the spill becomes explosive. Meanwhile, the bitumen begins to sink below the surface and may attach to silt and other ocean particles.

“At that point, it becomes impossible to track or find,” Wristen said. “You can’t use spill-response technology on it; you can’t use dispersants; you can’t pick it up with a skimmer. You’ve gotta be able to get ahold of it first of all, so this means we need new technology to deal with spills.”

Follow Tessa Vikander on Twitter @tessavikander.

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