It is fairly well known that oil spills are bad news for the environment. The recent large oil spill in Saskatchewan from a pipeline into the North Saskatchewan River is no exception. However, oil spills into rivers pose different problems than those in oceans. Most people are more familiar with marine spills as a result of the Exxon Mobil and Deep Water Horizon events in the past. Due to to the river water being fresh water as opposed to salt water causes a few added issues. It is not only the oil spills cause issues, there are other substances involved in the extraction and transport of petroleum resources which can spill and cause serious environmental damage. I’ll briefly go over these issues using the North Saskatchewan River spill as an example.
Oil spills into fresh water, whether lakes or rivers, presents different problems to those in oceans. I will focus on rivers as that is the situation that occurred recently and has been in the news. First, oil spilling into the ocean usually floats as salt water has a higher specific gravity. Although floating is normally the case for oil on water, certain types of oils can have higher specific gravity than water and actually sink or become suspended below the surface. Since fresh water has a lower specific gravity (near 1) than salt water (slightly above 1), some oil that would float in salt water will sink in fresh water (NOAA, 2016). This is bad because sinking oil is more difficult to contain and recover. Also it can accumulate in depressions and sediments on the river bottom affecting the environment much longer as it will not be flushed away to the shore or be captured by booms and absorbents. Another issue is that the riverbanks are often muddy or vegetated. This is a problem usually not faced with spills in oceans as ocean shores are often rocky or hard packed sand which are both much easier to clean than a muddy or vegetated riverbank (NOAA, 2016). Besides the environmental damage, there are social impacts as well. Fresh water spills affect people more directly as we rely on fresh water sources for our industry, commerce and drinking water. For example, North Saskatchewan River spill directly impacted the drinking water for nearly 70 000 people in the Prince Albert area and caused widespread water rationing. Prince Albert even had to build a 50 kilometre long pipeline to the South Saskatchewan River as an emergency contingency as it was unknown how long their main source would be unusable. North Battleford also had to build a pipeline to another town nearby to provide water (Government of Saskatchewan, 2016).
Leaking pipelines and other parts of the extraction and transport chain also leak contaminated (salty or toxic) water, condensates and gas. In Saskatchewan alone there have been 15 000 spills reported since 1990 (SaskOil.org). However, only spills of greater than 1 600 litres are required to be reported if the spill occurs on the licensee’s land (Statutes of Saskatchewan, 2014). It is highly likely that there are large amounts of these small spills, which could add up to serious damage to groundwater, soil or surface water. There are significant greenhouse gas emissions as a result of leaky infrastructure as well. Emissions from flaring and venting or wellhead leaks, etc. are collectively called ‘fugitive emissions’. Fugitive emissions are a fairly large portion of the energy sector’s emissions. For example, Canada’s fugitive emissions from the energy sector alone make up about 9% (17% in Saskatchewan) of the total emissions (Environment Canada, 2014).
Although there are serious risks with pipelines and the transport of petroleum products within the energy sector, with proper training and care the risks could be minimized. Furthermore, improvements to monitoring, regulation and removing self-regulation (like in Saskatchewan) could improve the situation. Furthermore, stiffer penalties and requirements for clean-up should be adopted by the provinces to protect the longevity of each province’s economy through protection of the environment everyone relies on.
Environment Canada, (2014). National Inventory Report 1990-2012: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. The Canadian Government’s Submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available online from http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/
Government of Saskatchewan, (2016). Husky oil spill status report August 3. Retrieved from http://www.saskatchewan.ca/business/environmental-protection-and-sustainability/hazardous-materials- and-safe-waste-management/~/link.aspx?_id=9E016FC60EB34B29B0D95F9A2559D1CB&_z=z#status- report
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (2016). Oil spills in rivers. Retrieved from http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/oil-and-chemical-spills/oil-spills/resources/oil-spills-rivers.html
Statues of Saskatchewan, (2014). The Pipelines Regulations, 2000. Retrieved from http://www.qp.gov.sk.ca/documents/English/Regulations/Regulations/P12-1R1.pdf
If interested also check out the Kalamazoo spill aftermath and clean-up. Kalamazoo spill was a major spill into a river in the United States which is quite infamous.