A research project to determine the impacts of a diluted bitumen pipeline spill in Canadian Boreal lakes has received $794,290 in federal funding.

“Our objective is to improve understanding of environmental impacts of dilbit on aquatic ecosystems, leading to more targeted strategies of reducing environmental impacts of dilbit spills,” Jules Blais, environmental scientist at the University of Ottawa, told the Bulletin. “We propose to examine changes to dilbit properties and composition that modify the behaviour, fate, longevity, and toxicity of dilbit in a simulated Boreal lake environment.

“These property and composition changes of diluted bitumen will also be used to target spill clean-up strategies and help inform future remediation efforts in the event of future dilbit spills into waterways.”

Blais’s project is a 2016 Strategic Partnership Grants for Projects Competition recipient. With experimental additions of diluted bitumen to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)-Experimental Lakes area (ELA) in-situ enclosures, his research will provide information on long-term impacts to aquatic environments from dilbit spills. This project is still pending approval by the IISD-ELA Research Advisory Board.

Earlier this week, the federal government announced more than $50 million in new Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding for 94 projects, including some in the natural resources and energy sector, supporting collaborations between the research community, industry and government organizations.

“I think it is important for research in the public interest to be supported by independent research councils like NSERC,” Blais said. “Apart from advancing new knowledge on the environmental impacts of dilbit, NSERC has nothing to gain or lose from the research outcomes, so it serves as a neutral funding agency.”

Major partners for the project Blais is pursuing include Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Energy Board (NEB), as well as the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which is providing $435,700 of additional in-kind support — mostly analytical.

“The research team consists [of] myself at the University of Ottawa, one partner at the University of Manitoba, one partner at Queen’s University, two partners at the [IISD-ELA], and one partner each at Environment and Climate Change Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada,” Blais noted.

Researchers will assess risks associated with a diluted bitumen spill to water, generating information on the fate, transport, and toxicity of dilbit so as to inform management practices and regulatory measures on future pipeline projects. Research objectives include quantifying the behaviour, fate, and weathering of dilbit constituents in a natural Canadian Boreal water column, as simulated in a contained enclosure system.

An exposure assessment of dilbit constituents based on a water column and bottom substrate exposure design is also part of the research, as is determining bioaccumulation of dilbit constituents from a water column, assessing dilbit toxicity based on a dose-response design, as well as providing information to assist the development of management practices and regulations for the transport of diluted bitumen in Canada.

Other federal grant recipients with crude-focused projects include Rosa Galvez-Cloutier, who along with Institut national de la recherche scientifique is receiving $670,032 towards an advanced study regarding unconventional oil behaviour for innovative emergency measures to surface water oil spills and the protection of water sources.

“We are proud to support these partnerships tackling significant challenge-driven research that strengthens public policy while also meeting industrial needs,” Bettina Hamelin, vice-president of NSERC research partnerships, stated during a funding announcement at the University of Ottawa on Wednesday.

Hamelin added: “NSERC has made significant investments in unique programs that build strong connections between Canada’s brain trust, industry and government sectors.”