The proposed Energy East Pipeline would transport heavy crude, or tar sands oil, diluted with natural gas products to make a product called Diluted Bitumen (DilBit). Unlike natural gas, which rises into the atmosphere after an explosion, in the event of a spill the oil would penetrate the soil and surrounding ecosystems, causing serious long-term ecological damage. After an oil spill, hyrdocarbons and other toxins seep into the sediment and travel up the food chain as fish and other animals eat contaminated species. In Mayflower, Arkansas in March 2012 an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying Alberta Dilbit spilled over 200,000 gallons of oil. The spill also exposed surrounding residents to high levels of benzene, a carcinogenic, as well as hydrogen sulfide, which is known to cause respiratory illness. The long-term health effects of these exposures are not yet known.
The risk to water is an area where DilBit differs significantly from conventional crude oil, which is lighter. Bitumen, or tar sands oil, has the thickness of peanut butter and is diluted with a mix of natural gas liquids, often including benzene, to thin it enough to flow through a pipeline. Whereas conventional oil has a greater tendency to float on water, DilBit sinks. This makes DilBit much more difficult to clean up in the event of a spill. In Marshall, Michigan in July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying Alberta DilBit leaked over 1,000,000 barrels of DilBit into the Kalamazoo River. The respective components of the DilBit separated, with the dilutant chemicals evaporating into the atmosphere, leaving only the tar sands crude, which sank to the bottom. The Marshall spill has been the largest on-land spill in U.S. history, and the costliest due to the ways in which the specific properties of DilBit have complicated cleanup efforts.
To date there are few scientific studies addressing the short and long-term health and environmental impacts of DilBit spills, although the U.S. federal government announced in May 2014 it will be partnering with the National Academy of Sciences to undertake such a study.
TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline would traverse the Northern Shore of Falcon Lake, which feeds into Shoal Lake, the source of Winnipeg’s drinking water. The City of Winnipeg has expressed concerns about the project for this reason.
In April 2014, an Environment Canada report revealed that in the period between 1990 to 2012 oil and gas production surpassed transportation as the country’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, accounting for one quarter of national emissions. The energy sector has seen roughly a 70 per cent increase in emissions due entirely to crude oil and tar sands expansion.
A Pembina Institute study of the Climate Implications of the Proposed Energy East Pipelineconcluded “that producing the crude needed to fill Energy East could generate up to 32 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions each year — an even greater impact than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.” Because of its climate implications, Pembina Institute recommended that the NEB include Energy East pipeline’s full upstream impacts in the scope of its review, and that the federal government end its delays and adopt strong emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector.