As I write, a relatively small spill of oil (250000 litres) is threatening the water supply of thousands along the North Saskatchewan river, causing damage of as yet unknown scope to the aquatic and riparian ecosystems, and most likely contaminating traditional First Nations medicines. We do not know the detailed composition of the oil, but there is now confirmation that it contained dense fractions (API<10) which have sunk to the bottom of the river and will create dead zones and ongoing ecological damage. (Because of these denser-than-water components, certain heavy oils and bitumen carry extra risk – it is virtually impossible to clean up, as was discovered at the much larger Enbridge leak at Kalamazoo Michigan six years ago). As for the floating portion of the oil, neither Husky nor the provincial government was capable of containing the slick, and others have had to bear the consequences.
Clearly Husky should take full financial responsibility for restitution of all that its oil has damaged. But successive provincial governments bear moral responsibility, on account of weak regulations and inadequate enforcement. The present government’s shift towards letting industry report its own emissions can only make the situation worse.
This smacks of inverted priorities. If we need to (and within the next few decades we will need to), we can find a way to live without fossil oil. We cannot live without water.
Meanwhile, premier Brad Wall is reported in the media as concerned that this leak should not increase opposition to proposed new diluted bitumen pipelines such as Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion or TransCanada’s Energy East. Any concern he may have for the victims of the spill is apparently secondary.
This leak was an accident, but Saskatchewan people should read it as a warning. Devastating forest fires and virtually-unprecedented floods of cities and agricultural land warn us that the climate is changing, and we must move away rapidly from dependence on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. The sudden drop in the international oil price, together with the weak potash market, warns us of the volatility and instability of an economy based on extractive industries – as shown in the rising provincial deficit figures. And now this accident warns us that economic dependence on oil can threaten the very basics of life even at a local level – a lesson which First Nations in northern Alberta have been telling the world, out of their own painful personal experience, for decades.
Unfortunately, premier Wall’s ideologically-driven commitment to Big Oil – reinforced by substantial infusions of Calgary petrocash to his party – ensures that he is incapable of reading such signs of the times. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Edited 2016:Jul:26 to take account of the fact that it is now known that some of the heavy oil has sunk