Canadian researchers have devoted considerable time and effort over the past six years to confirm that diluted bitumen (dilbit) behaves the same in water as other oil products — it floats.

The spill response and recovery strategies for dilbit into fresh water or seawater would be the same as with other heavy crude oil. Researchers have determined that dilbit can be available for surface recovery operations for up to three weeks.

In its 2016 final report on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, the National Energy Board (NEB) noted: “the existing information on diluted bitumen and intermediate to lighter heavy fuels allow modelling of their fate and behaviour for purposes of the (TMEP) application and spill response planning.”

Supplemental studies are currently underway to address related questions about the behaviour and fate of dilbit and other crude oil products in both marine and freshwater settings under a range of circumstances and conditions. Research topics include how oil spreads and behaves on water and the evaluation of current inland spill response technologies. Additionally, Trans Mountain is supporting research underway at the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ontario.

What We Already Know

Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is lighter than water — whether fresh water or seawater. In laboratory tests, dilbit floats at the water’s surface up to three weeks or more, even when exposed to wave action. Over the past five years, a variety of studies led by Canadian researchers, including those working for federal and independent laboratories, have all been consistent in their findings — dilbit floats in water.

In the very unlikely event of a spill into a marine environment, that is enough time to support significant recovery operations.

Trans Mountain’s own research (the Gainford, Alberta study), accepted as evidence by the National Energy Board in 2013, found that spilled dilbit behaved similarly to conventional heavy crudes during a 10-day weathering cycle of the research — and could be recovered from the surface of the water at all stages using conventional methods and equipment.

A comparable study carried out the same year by three federal agencies reached similar conclusions.

Subsequent research carried out by Natural Resources Canada, widely reported in the media, confirms the findings — dilbit would remain afloat up to three weeks in typical Canadian water temperature conditions.

Follow Up Studies Now Underway

Trans Mountain is directly funding research, as well as providing funds through the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), to further the effectiveness of response to spills of heavy oils in fresh water and marine aquatic environments. Additional funds are being contributed to research initiatives by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

Our participation in research initiatives includes:

  • An independent, science-based, multi-million-dollar study, commissioned by CAPP and CEPA, under the advisement of a Scientific Advisory Committee. The study is designed to evaluate and compare the physical and chemical properties of various types of crude oil transported in North America and determine how they behave in various marine, estuarine and freshwater settings and under different environmental conditions. The Scientific Advisory Committee includes representatives from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Energy Board and Natural Resources Canada.
  • A joint industry project, including the governments of British Columbia and Alberta, to independently evaluate and review current inland spill response technologies focusing on diluted bitumen, apply existing spill response technology to four scenarios and identify any gaps in the existing current technology.

This work is intended to be authoritative on the topic of oil fate and behaviour resulting from spills in Canadian waters.

Key Questions Researchers are Addressing

  • How much and how quickly will an individual crude oil product evaporate?
  • How does it spread and behave on water?
  • How dense does the oil become over time?
  • Under what conditions does oil sink in the flume tank?
  • Does it emulsify — how soon, how much and how stable is it?
  • How viscous does oil become over time?
  • Will it penetrate and/or stick to shorelines?

In order to answer these questions, an array of individual oil products is being tested in both laboratory tests and ‘meso’ (or medium-scale) tests outside of laboratory conditions. A cross section of conventional crude oil and non-conventional crude oil types (including dilbit) are included in the tests.

The meso-scale tests will take place at the Experimental Lakes Area, a globally-unique facility near Kenora, Ontario, that is operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The Experimental Lakes Area, or ELA, encompasses 58 lakes and their watersheds. The facility has supported hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles and has received several international awards for its support of water-based research. 

In November 2017, the IISD-ELA announced a three-stage research project to learn more about what oils do in freshwater systems.

“Our interest is in providing reliable results that can be used to inform better decision-making around pipeline development and to develop more effective methods for cleaning up lakes after oil spills,” the IISD-ELA stated in a November 2017 research update.

The first stage of the ELA project, a land-based pilot study examining the chemical and physical behaviour of dilbit in fresh water, was completed in 2017.

The field component of the study will be carried out in 2018. “Researchers will use large enclosures (10 metres in diameter) placed in a lake to examine how diluted bitumen reacts in fresh water over longer periods of time. Researchers will also be directly testing changes in the oil’s toxicity,” the IISD has stated.

A third study, also in 2018, will be based on information gleaned from the first two. Researchers will examine the most effective methods of cleaning spilled oil from shorelines.

Additionally, researchers from the University of Ottawa, the University of Manitoba and Queen’s University will examine the ecological impacts of contained diluted bitumen model spills in a freshwater boreal lake. A companion study, led by the IISD-ELA’s Dr. Vince Palace will compare the effectiveness of different methods for cleaning spilled oil from shorelines.

These studies are part of a large multi-disciplinary program that includes participation from governments (Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Ontario Municipal Employees Coordinating Committee, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), regulators (National Energy Board), academic partners (universities of Calgary, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ottawa, McGill, Queen’s, Institut national de la recherche scientifique,) and industry (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canadian Energy Pipelines Association).

The IISD-ELA emphasized that its research includes “rigorous measures” to protect the long-term health of the lakes, including a plan and scientifically-reviewed process to return the lake to the condition it was in before the research began.

More Details on Scheduled Research

Research underway in Canada is determining:

  • How the properties of individual oil products change in response to environmental conditions
  • How oil behaves in a spill — how it mixes with water, what happens when it sinks and how it interacts with sediment in the water
  • Behaviour differences among various bitumen blends, how these blends compare with conventional oils and the significance of those differences in the event of a spill

Laboratory-scale testing will:

  • Add to the understanding of how weather conditions may change oil composition and properties after a spill
  • Determine any differences in behaviour between conventional crudes and unconventional oil products such as dilbit in the event of a spill
  • Determine how oils behave when exposed to particulate matter, such as silt, that is suspended in water

Meso-scale testing will investigate:

  • The effects of oil weathering at a larger scale and under various environmental conditions such as changes in temperature, water salinity, exposure to sunlight, air flow, water current, turbulence and exposure to particulates suspended in water
  • The behaviour of conventional and unconventional crudes as they penetrate soil after a spill
  • The fate and behaviour of oil driven by waves onto an artificial shoreline  

Meeting BC, NEB Requirements for Spill Research

National Energy Board condition 124 calls on Trans Mountain to report on the enhancements made to the current Emergency Management Program, including a summary of its ability to “prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the potential effects of emergencies of any type and in any geographic region or season and must include. . . a description of the models used in responses planning, including oil trajectory, fate and behaviour.”

The BC Environmental Assessment Office also requires Trans Mountain to support research (condition 35) on topics with the objective to provide spill responders with improved information on how to effectively respond to spills. Trans Mountain must report on how it will incorporate applicable results into its emergency preparedness and response plans. Additionally, the report is to include how Trans Mountain will “work with spill responders to support the incorporation of the results of the research into their emergency preparedness plans and programs.”

Periodic reports on the progress of the research being supported by Trans Mountain are to be provided to the NEB, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Coast Guard, the BC Ministry of Environment, the BC Ministry for Natural Gas Development, the BC Oil and Gas Commission and Aboriginal groups. The most recent update can be found here.

Together, the findings of this research will assist companies such as Trans Mountain and spill response organizations such as the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation to enhance preparedness and response capabilities in both the short term (first 72 hours) and longer terms, in the unlikely event of an oil release.