There are some things that never come up when discussing the Athabasca Tar Sands or shipping bitumen to China.
The difference between bitumen and conventional oil never comes up. Bitumen isn't oil. In it's processed, or upgraded, form its a sludge that has to be diluted and heated in order to pump it through pipelines.
Bitumen is diluted with a chemical soup brought to our shores in tankers and pumped via pipelines to Alberta. Once they're combined you have a product called "dil-bit" or diluted bitumen that can then be heated and pumped at high pressure through pipelines.
Dil-bit is nasty stuff. It contains high levels of pipeline eating acids and abrasives. It literally scours the pipeline walls as it passes through them. It also contains high levels of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxins. It's wicked stuff.
Dil-bit is necessary for just one purpose - to enable bitumen to be transported to distant refineries where it can be turned into synthetic crude oil and other petroleum products.
By now you may be asking the routinely unasked and never answered question, why dil-bit? Why bother transporting this dangerous product to refineries thousands of miles away, placing everything between the Tar Sands and the distant refineries at unnecessary risk? Why not simply complete the refining of bitumen in Alberta and then ship much more benign, far less hazardous synthetic crude to overseas markets? Interesting question and the key to this whole sordid business.
Foreign customers want the raw stuff delivered to them because they have excess refining capacity. It's actually cheaper to ship dilutent in tankers to Alberta and the mixed dil-bit back to these remote refineries than to pay to have the stuff refined, on site, in Alberta. And because, dangerous as that might be, it greatly improves the bottom line royalties that Alberta and Ottawa get for nothing. In other words, it's better to leave British Columbia at enormous risk of environmental catastrophe than to do the right thing and refine the gunk in Alberta.
You see, bitumen as a petroleum source is a dodgy proposition. It's expensive stuff to extract and process and ship. That really narrows the profit margins. Andrew Coyne inadvertently made the point in his latest piece where he discussed the suggestion that we "should build a pipeline to carry oil from Alberta to the eastern provinces and beyond," which he noted the powers that be admit, "the economic case isn't there."
In other words it's not economical to ship Alberta sludge east. That's a losing proposition. But it is economical, profitable, to send it to tankers at docks on the B.C. coast. Yet that too is only profitable if you don't have to carry the cost of British Columbia's environmental risks on your books.
But there's another reason why Ottawa and Alberta don't want to refine their crud in Alberta. The refining process would require a great deal of energy and generate significant amounts of carbon emissions neither Ottawa nor Alberta want to carry on Alberta's already overburdened books. So, out of sight/out of mind, just so long as British Columbia carries the risks.
Bitumen or refined, synthetic crude. That ought to be what this battle is about. At least synthetic crude can have the abrasives, acids, carcinogens and heavy metals refined out of it. And synthetic crude oil, unlike bitumen, floats and so gives us a chance of containing coastal spills. And with only refined, synthetic crude being shipped we would need just half the tanker trips, cutting the already high risks by almost half. But Ottawa and Alberta don't want to do that. They don't want to do the right thing. So long as British Columbia carries the risks, why should they trouble themselves with carbon emissions, energy demands and putting their bitumen into a relatively safe form?