Northern Gateway experts

The diluted bitumen that will flow from the Alberta oil sands to a British Columbia tanker port would not sink in the event of a marine oil spill, contrary to claims made by opponents, say experts behind the Northern Gateway Pipeline project.

As such, the marine oil-spill response plan, which the company points out it has taken on voluntarily, above and beyond Canadian regulations, does not need and does not include measures to remove oil from the ocean floor, a regulatory review panel heard Wednesday.

That panel is currently examining the project's marine oil-spill plans.

"I don't know if it's possible to drive a stake through the heart of this concept of sinking oil, but every one of these liquids that we're talking about is no different from any other liquid we have on Earth," said Al Maki, one of 10 experts answering questions under oath this week.

Experience and lab tests show diluted bitumen weighs less than water, Maki said.

"It is an immutable fact of physics that they will float. They simply cannot sink in water."

That claim brought lawyers representing six First Nations and environmental groups to their feet to dispute the statement and demand a copy of the report cited by the company.

There is no scientific consensus on the behaviour of diluted bitumen in a real-life spill situation.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information last summer included a request from the head of the Fisheries and Oceans' Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research section for further study, a request that appears to have been denied.

Chris Jones, the lawyer questioning the company experts on behalf of the B.C. government, pointed out Northern Gateway itself has committed to further research on diluted bitumen as part of its application, as well as participation on a scientific advisory committee.

"Why is all that scientific work necessary if Northern Gateway is so confident that diluted bitumen won't sink?" Jones asked.

The research and committee were recommendations of Environment Canada, consultant Owen McHugh told the panel.

"We understand that this is a contentious project and there are issues that people want explored, and we felt this was an appropriate avenue to have those issues explored, so that's why we committed to this group," he said.

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