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Large Pipeline Spill in Alberta 'Stark Reminder' of Dangers of Tar Sands

Rupture near Fort McMurray may be one of province's largest

"We need to stop new pipeline projects before they’re built and focus on building renewable sources of energy that are sustainable and won’t threaten communities, our environment, and the planet," said Greenpeace's Mike Hudema. (Photo: Chris Yakimov/flickr/cc)

A pipeline rupture in the Canadian province of Alberta is "a stark reminder" of the dangers of tar sands, say environmental campaigners.

The spill has been described as one of the largest in the province's history.

Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) manager Peter Murchland said, "It’s one of the bigger ones certainly in the last couple of years."

According to a statement from the pipeline company, Nexen, the leak was discovered Wednesday afternoon at its Long Lake tar sands facility near Fort McMurray.

It estimates that five million liters (over 31,000 barrels) of emulsion—what it describes as a mix of bitumen, produced water and sand—spilled over an area roughly 16 thousand square meters (nearly four acres). No injuries were reported.

ThinkProgress offers more detail about the "emulsion" mix:

Bitumen is a combination of viscous tar sands crude oil and liquid chemicals like benzene that dilute the crude so it can be piped to refineries. Produced water is water used during the process of oil or gas extraction that can contain hydraulic fracturing chemical additives and naturally occurring substances and is not suitable for irrigation or drinking. It must be stored in tanks or pits before being treated and disposed.

AER added in a statement Thursday that there are no reported impacts to the public or wildlife, and that the source of the release had been stopped.

The spill comes the same week as provincial premiers hammered out a national energy strategy—a strategy that environmental organizations say should not include tar sands expansion. But the "aspirational" deal the premiers reached Friday, according to the Globe and Mail, "sets no Canada-wide hard targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions but provides a roadmap for expansion of pipelines and the country’s energy industry."  And that means, according to Andrea Harden-Donahue, Energy and Climate Campaigner with the Council of Canadians, that the strategy "falls short" of addressing the climate crisis.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the organzation, added, "It is no small irony that Alberta is experiencing one of Canada’s biggest pipeline spills while premiers have finalized a Canadian Energy Strategy that gives spaces for massive tar sands pipelines like Kinder Morgan and Energy East."

Mike Hudema with Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy team stated Thursday that the Nexen spill offers "a stark reminder of how dangerous [tar sands pipelines] can be."

"This leak is also a good reminder that Alberta has a long way to go to address its pipeline problems, and that communities have good reasons to fear having more built. New pipelines would also facilitate the expansion of the tar sands—Canada’s fastest growing source of carbon emissions—and accelerate the climate crisis even more.

"We need to stop new pipeline projects before they’re built and focus on building renewable sources of energy that are sustainable and won’t threaten communities, our environment, and the planet," Hudema continued.

That's a perspective not shared by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who defended the proposed controversial Energy East pipeline, and said Thursday: "I hope we can be a little bolder in the energy strategy, to say that oil and gas is a good thing."

CBC News adds: "[Alberta's Rachel] Notley said growing energy infrastructure in Canada is not 'incompatible' with protecting the environment."

But a sound national energy policy is about more than the environment, and it should go beyond banning tar sands, Barlow stated.

"Halting extreme energy expansion, including tar sands infrastructure by pipeline and rail, fracking and offshore drilling, is essential, as is respecting Indigenous rights, better regulating the oil and gas industry, shifting subsidies to climate solutions and supporting good jobs that reduce our climate footprint," she stated.  "This should be the bedrock of a Canadian Energy Strategy, and there are plenty of ways premiers can achieve this."

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