The media is no stranger to making news seem more newsworthy than in actual fact. Case in point is the recent Nexen pipeline leak in Northern Alberta. Since the leak was first reported, there have been accounts of the spill reaching five million litres of bitumen!
Five million sounds like a outrageous amount of bitumen to be dumped into the environment, but on second thought, when was the last time bitumen was measured in litres? The normal custom, of course, for the media is to report volumes of petroleum products in barrels of oil equivalent. However, it is clear that when it comes time for the reporting of environmental contamination, conventional reporting techniques quite easily go out the door.
In the above example, while five million litres sounds horrifying, when converted to barrels of oil, the number shrinks to a mere pittance of five million: 31,450 barrels of oil.
In other publications, the total area of affected land was reported as 16,000 square metres (or 4 acres). While this is true, again, when does that amount of land ever get reported in square metres? Why not just report it as square centimetres? In that scenario, the spill would have affected 160,000,000 square centimetres! A travesty! Something must be done!
And so for the next time around, be wary when you read in the media that 5,000,000,000 milliletres of tarsand bitumen has contaminated 160,000,000 square centimetres of Northern Alberta muskeg.
In reality, the numbers when conventionally reported, are far less sensational.