The Numbers Don't Lie: The Petroleum Industry and Spill Solutions Go Together like Oil and Water

By Nikiforuk, Andrew | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Numbers Don't Lie: The Petroleum Industry and Spill Solutions Go Together like Oil and Water


Nikiforuk, Andrew, Alternatives Journal


FOR DECADES now, the oil and gas industry has pretended that it can clean up marine oil spills. But science has never supported this damnable myth.

The issue is an old one. In 1972, for example, BP's Cherry Point refinery spilled about 7500 litres of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. The spill moved north into Canadian waters and Surrey Mayor Bill Vander Zalm declared that BP had "no experience, no knowledge, no plan," for a clean-up.

Fast forward to 2016. In October a submerged tugboat, the Nathan E Stewart, spilled 110,000 litres of diesel fuel and other petroleum products near the town of Bella Coola. It appeared again as though there was "no experience, no knowledge, no plan." Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the response "unacceptable."

But cleaning up marine oil spills has never been anything more than prime time theatre designed to give the public a false impression that something is being done.

The hard reality is this: a big spill is almost impossible to contain because it is physically impossible to mobilize resources, let alone problematic cleanup technologies, in a timely fashion on the high seas. In 2015 when the City of Vancouver asked experts to study the effectiveness of responses to large tanker or pipeline spills on its oceanfront, they told the truth: "collecting and removing oil from the sea surface is a challenging, time-sensitive, and often ineffective process, even under the most favourable conditions."

Part of the problem has to do with bad technologies adopted and billed by industry as world-class. Ever since the 1970s, the oil and gas industry has trotted out the same basic gadgets to deal with ocean spills. They include placing temporary leak containments called booms in the water and then skimming off the crude or burning it in place; or dumping chemicals such as Corexit into the water to break up the oil into smaller particles. For small spills these technologies can sometimes make a difference. But none have ever contained a large spill.

Conventional containment booms, for example, don't work in icy water, or where waves run amuck. Burning oil merely transforms one grave problem, water pollution, into sooty greenhouse gases. Dispersants don't really clean things up either; they merely hide the oil out of sight by sinking small droplets into the ocean column. "Sadly, even after over 40 years experience", notes Darryl McMahon, a director of RESTCO, a firm pursuing more effective clean-up technologies, "the outcomes are not acceptable. …

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