SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A group of scientists say a lack of publicly available information about the chemicals used to mine fuel from tar sands could hamper efforts to safeguard marine habitats in the Bay Area and beyond in the event of a spill.
The environmental impacts of the fuel from tar sands, known as bitumen, on marine life remains largely unknown, according to a study published Dec. 20 in the journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
“There just isn’t enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean,” said the study’s lead author Stephanie Green, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. “We found almost no research about bitumen’s effects on marine species.”
While Canada has the largest confirmed deposits of oil sands in the world, and has been mining those deposits since the late 1960s, the Canadian government last month approved the extension of the Trans Mountain pipeline to carry oil sands from Alberta to Vancouver.
From there, the fuel from tar sands will be moved by ocean vessel to the San Francisco Bay Area for refining.
And while tar sands oil development in the U.S. remains limited, a large deposit in Utah is already in the pre-production phase, according to the Canadian company U.S. Oil Sands Inc. That oil could also potentially end up in Bay Area refineries.
Energy consultant David Hackett told CBS in 2015 that he expects to see tankers full of crude oil from tar sands coming into the San Francisco Bay in large numbers by 2018.
Projected route of crude oil from Alberta tar sands to the Bay Area. (CBS)
In the study, scientists recommend further analysis of the unconventional oil that comes from tar sands, or oil sands, prior to setting new regulations or further tar sands development, which President-elect Donald Trump hopes to expand in the United States.
Bitumen is a tar-like fuel extracted from oil sands. The composition of bitumen is dependent on the chemicals used to make the thick, chunky product flow through pipelines.
Manufacturers are not required to fully report the makeup of these chemical mixtures, according to the study.
In recent years, tar sands have seen a great deal of push-back in Canada and the U.S.
In 2015, over 100 scientists joined together to call for a moratorium on new mining of Canada’s tar sands. Among the scientists who demanded an end to new tar sands mining was Nobel Laureate Dr. Kenneth J. Arrow, a professor of economics at Stanford University.
That same year, the University of California was among the largest educational institutions in the world to divest from tar sand development. While the university still invests in oil and natural gas, it announced its divestment of $200 million from coal and tar sands stocks.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has launched a petition calling for the ban of tar sand tankers from U.S. waters.
Unlike conventional fuel, the oil from tar sands is denser than water and will sink to the ocean floor during a spill, making cleanup of a spill much more difficult.
A 2102 spill of tar sands crude oil in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River has taken over five years to clean up.
With the incoming Trump administration, scientists and environmentalists say more knowledge is needed to create effective policies on oil sands development, transport and disaster response in the event of an ocean spill.
By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.