Knowledge gaps about the behaviour of diluted bitumen when it is spilled into saltwater and lack of information about how to deal with multiple problems that can result from extracting and transporting bitumen from the Alberta oilsands, make it impossible for government or industry to come up with effective policies to deal with a disaster, says a newly published research paper, Oilsands and the Marine Environment.
The study by ecologists from Simon Fraser, Stanford, Oregon State and Northern Arizona universities, who scrutinized more than 9,000 research papers, concludes that officials should collect more information about the environmental effects of bitumen before setting regulations.
"There just isn't enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean," said lead author Stephanie Green, a Banting postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University.
"We found almost no research about bitumen's effects on marine species," she said.
As controversy continues to swirl around the federal government's approval of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and as president-elect Donald Trump prepares to overhaul energy and environmental regulations and reopen the Keystone XL pipeline application, the lack of credible information highlights policy flaws, the researchers said.
"In this context, policymakers risk confusing the lack of evidence for particular environmental effects with evidence that there is no risk," Green said.
Out of all the studies examined, only two addressed the toxicity of bitumen in the ocean, said coauthor Thomas Sisk of Northern Arizona University.
"We don't even know for certain whether this form of petroleum will float or sink during an ocean spill," he said.
Bitumen is the consistency of peanut butter when extracted from the oilsands and, as it is too thick to flow through a pipe, it is diluted with chemicals or lighter petroleum products such as natural gas concentrate, refined naptha or synthetic crude oil to make it flow. The diluted product is commonly known as dilbit.
However, a major block to coming up with spill responses or figuring out the exact behaviour of dilbit in the ocean is that there are dozens of different formulas and the chemical diluent mix is treated as a trade secret by oil companies.
"A crucial first step in filling this gap is a requirement that the chemical composition of oilsands products be made available for scientific study and impact assessment," the study recommends.
The paper, which was published last week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, found that policy flaws include a failure to adequately address carbon emissions or the cumulative effects of multiple projects.
The scientist found there are 15 "pathways" through which the extraction and transportation of oilsands bitumen can negatively affect oceans.
Impacts include problems resulting from a spill, the effect of increased tanker traffic on marine animals and climate change effects such as increasing ocean acidity and temperature and rapid sea-level rise, says the study.
However, there are few scientific studies looking at the effect of two or more of the impacts arising simultaneously.
"Projects should not be considered in isolation and multiple types of impacts need to be considered simultaneously. Everything is connected," said co-author Wendy Palen of Simon Fraser University.
The gaps in information on multiple stressors are particularly evident on a regional basis for eelgrass and kelp forest systems, the study says.
"Accounting for the effects of multiple projects, concurrently, in scientific assessments and planning processes will lead to more accurate assessments of oil sands contributions to cumulative effects on resources that are in the footprint of multiple industries," it recommends.
Expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to Burnaby will see the capacity of the pipeline triple to 890,000 barrels a day, compared to the current capacity of 300,000 barrels a day. The expansion will also mean the number of tankers, travelling through the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, will increase to 34 a month from five a month.
The BC Liberal government has set five conditions for approving the pipeline expansion, but is showing every sign that it will get a green light, while the NDP and Green Party oppose it.
Green Party leader Andrew Weaver claims his party is the only one to consistently oppose the pipeline.
"You can't clean up dilbit, so we should ban heavy oil tankers on the coast," he said categorically.