Baykeeper is working to prevent a dangerous new threat to San Francisco Bay—a tar sands oil spill.
If spilled in the Bay, heavy tar sands oil would likely sink to the Bay’s bottom, making it virtually impossible to remove and causing irreparable harm to the ecosystem. Despite this threat, companies that handle and transport tar sands oil are not required to prepare a contingency plan for cleaning up this kind of spill. And, as new pipelines are fast-tracked under the current federal administration, heavy oil transport will likely become more widespread over the next decade.
Baykeeper is working to prevent expanded tar sands traffic and to educate oil spill response agencies about the unusual qualities of tar sands and other heavy oils. In a November workshop, Baykeeper helped bring together oil experts and spill responders to assess the dangers posed by heavy oils, explore how they differ from conventional oil, and brainstorm ways to prepare. The results of the workshop are being evaluated by the California Office of Spill Prevention and Recovery (OSPR), the Coast Guard, and other agencies involved in oil spill response in the Bay Area and across the state.
Heavy tar sands oil poses a unique risk to San Francisco Bay. Lighter oil rests on the water’s surface when first spilled. If responded to quickly, spills of floating oils can be contained with an oil boom and then skimmed from the surface of the water. Oil of this kind is considered “conventional” because it is extracted by the traditional method of drilling a pipe underground to extract liquid pools of oil.
In contrast, unconventional oils, like tar sands, are extremely thick—almost solid. They are so viscous that they require specialized methods, like hydraulic fracturing, to extract from the earth. Tar sands oil, which is extracted with blasts of steam or solvents, is a type of heavy oil that is becoming more prevalent in the marketplace as conventional oil reserves diminish.
The qualities that make heavy oils difficult to pump from under the Earth’s surface are the same qualities that make them difficult to clean up once spilled. Tar sands oil is so heavy that some portion of it will likely sink when it enters water. It coats plants, animals, and sediment at the bottom of a waterway as a sticky, toxic tar. A 2010 tar sands spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a ruptured pipeline devastated that river’s ecosystem. Cleanup efforts lasted for five years, and the ecosystem has not yet recovered.
The push for importing more heavy oils has already begun in the Bay Area. Much of the tar sands oil will come from Canada, although California’s oil fields produce some of the heaviest oil in the world. That’s why the oil industry is eyeing Bay Area refineries for Canadian tar sands exports—local refineries already have the processing capacity for heavy oils like tar sands, since they currently process heavier California oils.
For example, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo wants to increase the number of oil tankers bringing crude oil, including tar sands oil, across the Bay to its facility alone from 59 to 135 tankers per year. A single oil tanker holds millions of gallons of oil, so such a dramatic increase in tanker traffic would significantly raise the risk of a tragic spill in the Bay. Phillips 66 has already had two conventional oil spills in San Francisco Bay so far in 2017.
Baykeeper will continue to work with community advocates, legislators, scientists, and disaster response officials to prevent this toxic substance from getting into the Bay and to make sure the Bay Area is as ready as possible for a potential spill.
Above, fossil fuel oils ranging from light to heavy. When spilled in a waterway, heavy oils like tar sands can smother plants and animals (image by the American Petroleum Institute).