Scientists plan simulated oil spills in northwestern Ontario

Scientists are planning experimental "oil spills" in northwestern Ontario this summer in an effort to better understand what happens when diluted bitumen winds up in freshwater lakes.

Experiments have implications for pipeline approvals, oil transport by rail and cleanup

A drone photo of a shoreline enclosure at the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario in 2017. Scientists will apply diluted bitumen and weathered conventional crude to enclosures like this over the next two years to simulate the cleanup after freshwater oil spills. (Scott Higgins/IISD-ELA)

Scientists are planning experimental "oil spills" in northwestern Ontario this summer in an effort to better understand what happens when diluted bitumen winds up in freshwater lakes.

In research with implications for how Canada regulates oil transport by pipelines and rail, ecologists at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) east of Kenora are planning to simulate a series of spills, clean them up and then assess what happens to the water, plants and animals.

In one set of experiments, diluted bitumen — the product most commonly transported from Alberta's oil sands — will be added to enclosed columns of lake water in different concentrations to see where the oil goes, how it breaks down and what happens to the algae, plankton, invertebrates and fish.

In other experiments, both conventional crude and diluted bitumen will be added to shoreline enclosures to see how each type of oil is affected by waves and to monitor the residual effects on the environment after the gunk is cleaned up.

The experiments are one of the largest efforts yet to find out what happens after oil winds up in freshwater lakes — knowledge scientists say is needed to better inform the national debate about pipelines and the transport of oil by rail.

"Governments need to regulate the energy sector and this work is providing the science needed to do that," said Jules Blais, a University of Ottawa environmental toxicologist leading the water-column experiment.

"We still know very little about what this diluted bitumen does under natural scenarios. We can work with these things in the lab and have done so, but when they are exposed to natural mixing, to natural wind, to sunlight [and] to the natural conditions that happen in a boreal setting — we need to understand these processes better."​ 

In 2015, a Royal Society of Canada panel concluded there's an increasing risk of oil spills in freshwater environments and more research needs to be conducted on bitumen.

"Traditionally, it's been diesel oil or things like that have been involved in spills. But now, in Canada and other countries, we're looking at things like diluted bitumen and other fossil-fuel mixtures that are coming on line. So those are new challenges that we don't have a lot of information on," said Ken Lee, national senior science adviser for oil-spill research, preparedness and response for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa.

"The amount of oil that's being moved by rail transport in Canada has increased substantially, so there's much higher risk of spills in freshwater environments."

Rawson Lake, also known as Lake 239, is part of the Experimental Lakes Area, where freshwater scientists have been conducting large-scale ecological experiments since 1967. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

This provided part of the impetus for the simulated spills at ELA, an area of Crown land in the Canadian Shield set aside for environmental research in 1967, now run by the non-profit International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in Winnipeg. 

While ELA is best known for whole-ecosystem research, where the chemistry of entire lakes is altered for the sake of science, this summer's experiments will take place within enclosures separated from the surrounding water by impermeable membranes.

"The oil will not get into the lake," said Vince Palace, head research scientist at IISD-ELA, in Winnipeg. 

Researchers at the Experimental Lakes Area work in 2017 on a pilot version of an enclosure that will be part of this summer's experiment. (Jules Blais)

Regulator interested

Palace is heading up the shoreline simulations, which will take place within a rectangular area of lake that includes a section of open shore. 

Small quantities of both diluted bitumen and conventional crude — weathered to approximate the conditions of an actual spill — will be added and removed after three days to simulate a spill and cleanup.

Next summer, this experiment will expand to involve different types of shorelines and the addition of nutrients to promote the growth of microbes that break down oil.

The National Energy Board, which regulates the oil industry, is keenly interested in the results of Palace's work.

"Pipelines are generally terrestrial and any spills are likely to end up in fresh water," said NEB chief environment officer Robert Steedman in Calgary.

"We need to understand what happens to oil that is not cleaned up, what the environmental consequences are and what the natural processes to degrade the oil are."

Scientists are planning experimental "oil spills" in northwestern Ontario this summer in an effort to better understand what happens when diluted bitumen winds up in freshwater lakes. 2:09

Scientific rigour

In Blais' experiment, he and his team will add various concentrations of diluted bitumen to seven columns of water, likes large test tubes in the lake. They will observe how it reacts with sun and wind, where it winds up in the water and how it affects organisms, from plankton all the way up to fish.

While these experiments are not the first to be conducted in freshwater environments, they add to a body of oil-spill data compiled mostly after actual spills, where scientists had no chance to gather baseline data about the environment.

"The problem with spills is they're accidents. They happen without warning. There's no way to asses the effects prior to when there was oil," Blais said.

"We don't have a good sense of where the oil is spilled, where it goes and how much is spilled. In order to this properly, with scientific rigour, we have to do this in a more controlled environment, which is what we're attempting to do."

Canada's oil industry also supports the work.

"Our first preference is we never have spills, but in the rare instance that there is a spill, we want to have the best science and information available to help us ensure that any cleanup and remediation is done and is as effective as possible," said Terry Abel, executive-vice president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Calgary. 

The experiments will cost a combined $4.5 million, funded by government, academic and private sources.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.