07/28/2016 01:06 EDT | Updated 07/28/2016 01:59 EDT

Saskatchewan Oil Spill Reminder That No Pipeline Is Safe

saskatchewan oil spill

Crews work to clean up an oil spill on the North Saskatchewan river near Maidstone, Sask. on Friday July 22, 2016. Husky Energy has said between 200,000 and 250,000 litres of crude oil and other material leaked into the river on Thursday from its pipeline. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

On the TV news and in newspapers, we have seen that a pipeline, property of Husky Oil, has spilled more than 200,000 litres of petroleum in the North Saskatchewan River.

The oil slick is rapidly moving downstream, polluting the river bottom as well as the drinking water of wildlife, livestock and the citizens living in its watershed. The mayor of Prince Albert, Mr. Greg Dionne, has declared a state of emergency in his city. The city water purification plant must stop pumping water from the river because the oil slick is approaching its water intake.

This emergency is worse than a boil advisory. Boiling the water will destroy harmful bacteria (usually E. Coli), thereby making it fit to drink again. But how do you "kill" petroleum? So this is a "drinking water advisory." In other words, don't let this tainted water touch your body, don't drink it, don't cook your food in it and don't shower with it!

But animals must have drinking water, too. The citizens of North Battleford and Prince Albert could be forced to live in this unacceptable straightjacket for months. A temporary 30-kilometre water pipeline might partially solve the problem for the moment, but it would freeze during the winter if the emergency lasts more than four months!

When politicians ask that Manitobans, Ontarians, Quebecers and New Brunwickers authorize Energy East, these promoters are demanding that we should be constantly at risk of such a giant spill.

Even if Husky Oil pays for some damages, what about the financial losses of farmers and local businesses? What about the anxiety that every citizens faces as he or she tries to cope with the situation on an hour by-hour basis? And what about a sound and beautiful environment? No insurance money can totally pay for such losses.

In Quebec, we have sympathy for the plight of the people of Prince Albert. On Jan. 15, 2015, a tank containing diesel fuel contaminated the water purification plant of the south shore city of Longueuil. This left 300,000 people without access to water for three days.

Accidents like these should be a lesson for the citizens of Canada: no pipeline is totally safe. Presently, there are a number of pipelines projects that are awaiting approval by the National Energy Board (NEB). Among them, Energy East would see 1,100,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen (dilbit) travel over 4,600 kilometres to the East Coast and cross more than 800 rivers, streams, ditches and marshlands. If built, that pipeline would carry more than 2,000 litres of heavy oil per second.

At the BAPE (Quebec's equivalent of the NEB), TransCanada admitted that if its sensors worked right, and the people in its control center reacted correctly, it could stop the flow of oil in 13 minutes. That means that if every thing goes right, "only" 1,560,000 litres of heavy oil would escape. In real life, 13 minutes between the detection of a leak and its complete stop is overly optimistic. In this case, Husky Oil needed 14 hours. And in 2010, Enbridge, in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, required 17 hours.

One must remember that the crossing of the Ottawa river between Hawkesbury and Rigaud is technically difficult from an engineering point of view. A giant spill, upstream of Montreal, would leave 3.5 million in the same situation as the people of Prince Albert and North Battleford.

Such unfortunate incidents can become a springboard to change our way of living that depends so heavily on fossil fuels. We should be thinking along the lines of the Conference of Paris -- to keep climate change within acceptable ranges, mankind must move rapidly towards a low-carbon economy.

On the other hand, if we increase our dependence on oil, thereby producing more greenhouses gases (GHC) we will face increasingly bizarre and costly weather events such as hurricanes, heavy downpour and droughts. Giant forest fires, caused by extreme dryness, are also costly.

When politicians, such as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, ask that Manitobans, Ontarians, Quebecers and New Brunwickers authorize Energy East, these promoters are demanding that we should be constantly at risk of such a giant spill. There are no risk-free oil technologies!

The same argument applies to British Columbians and First Nations who are opposed to the Northern Gateway and TransMountain pipelines that run towards the West Coast -- or, for that matter, to Enbridge's old Line 9B towards Montreal. Each litre of oil will contaminate one million litres of water. Oil and water don't mix.

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