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The Numbers Don't Lie: The petroleum industry and spill solutions go together like oil and water.

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. In many cases, the strategy is still to ignore spills on open water, only addressing them when the slicks reach shore."

Consider, for a moment, the industry's dismal record on oil recovery. The average citizen might think that the purpose of a marine oil spill response would be to safely recover the oil and reuse it. He or she might also expect the amount of recovered oil would increase over time as industry learned and adopted "best practices." But the data shows little or no improvement.

During the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the majority of the oil evaporated, dropped to the ocean bottom, smothered beaches or was naturally dispersed by oil-chewing bacteria and currents. Experts suspect BP captured about three percent of what it spilled, but one federal calculation puts the recovery at 17 percent. Even so, that's not much of an improvement over the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 when industry recovered an estimated 10 to 15 percent. Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10 to 15 percent of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. That's an appalling record.

To make matters worse, no one knows how to clean up diluted bitumen. Part of it will evaporate and part will sink. A 2015 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that industry had failed to develop "effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of submerged and sunken oils in aquatic environments."

The hubris about cleaning up large spills with inappropriate technologies probably won't end until three things happen. Communities most affected by catastrophic spills must have the democratic right to say no to what can potentially cause them: tankers or pipelines. Second, authorities must publicly recognize that the only technological standard that matters should be full recovery of the oil. Last but not least, governments must properly price the risk of catastrophic spills and demand multi-billion dollar bonds for the worst-case analysis.

Only that dose of reality can end bad public theatre on the high seas.

Andrew Nikiforuk writes regularly for The Tyee about the politics and economics of the energy industry. His latest book, Slick Water, examines an insider's stand against the fracking industry,
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Title Annotation:THE ENERGY MATRIX
Author:Nikiforuk, Andrew
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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