Sunday, February 10, 2013
A Tar Sands Compromise, One They'll Have to Refuse
Today's bitumen trafficking contemplated by Enbridge, Redford and Harper is beset by indefensible problems. The proponents are making it far worse than it needs to be.
A huge part of their problem is dilbit, the stuff that still lines the riverbed of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It's truly noxious stuff. Just to be able to be pumped through a pipeline, Alberta bitumen must be diluted. It's mixed with dilutents to become what's commonly known as dilbit, diluted bitumen. This dilbit is then pumped across Canada's borders for export to world markets.
What happens to dilbit once it reaches Asia or Texas? The dilutents are refined out. Then the crud is refined out of the bitumen to leave a functional, synthetic petroleum that can be further refined into conventional fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel, etc.
The really nasty nature of dilbit is that, when it is spilled, it creates a hell of a mess. It's laced with heavy metals, acids and carcinogens. If spilled on land, the soil usually has to be dug out. If spilled in waterways, like the Kalamazoo River, the dilutent separates out, rises to the surface, vaporizes into a toxic cloud, while the remainder, the bitumen, sinks to the bottom and contaminates the river bed or lake bed or seabed.
Regular oil tends to float or so we believed before the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But a good deal of it does float and can even be broken up and dispersed by wave action.
So, why do Enbridge, Redford and Harper insist on trafficking in dilbit at all? Why not do the upgrading/refining in Alberta and export, instead, synthetic crude oil - the stuff that floats?
That's right. Build the infrastructure, hire Canadians, and refine the bitumen into its safest form right on site in Alberta. More economic activity for Alberta, more revenue, a product that they don't have to desperately shop around the globe. No need to import costly dilutents into Alberta, far less volume to pump out. That also translates into fewer tankers needed to ply British Columbia's coastal waters carrying far less hazardous cargo. That sounds like win, win, win, win.
So what's wrong with that idea? Plenty. That would mean having to reveal that Athabasca bitumen is a major, sub-prime asset that, in refined form, can't compete on world markets. That would invite scrutiny of the Athabasca Con game.
Exposed, the marketable price of Athabasca synthetic crude, would invite sober scrutiny of other aspects of the venture - the subsidies, tax deferrals, and minimal royalties; the true viability (or myth) of carbon capture and sequestration; the massive energy and water consumption for extraction and upgrading; postponed costs of environmental remediation; environmental impacts, current and future including the tailing ponds; the havoc of inevitable "boom and bust" cycles resulting from having to market the world's most expensive petroleum; the corruption of governments, federal and provincial; perhaps even the contribution to climate change and the sullying of Canada's reputation.
And that's why this simple compromise would be a non-starter for Enbridge, the Calgary Petroleum Club, the Athabasca operators, Redford and Harper. They haven't cloaked this venture in so many blatant lies so that they can be smoked out into the light of day.
Yet it's a good and reasonable policy alternative for the Liberals or New Democrats. Be a good neighbour to British Columbia, only ship the clean stuff, not that rank bitumen or dilbit. Keep those refining jobs in Alberta. Keep that refining infrastructure and income in Canada. Cut down on dangerous and unnecessary tanker traffic. It sells itself. What could be more reasonable?
Force Harper and Redford and Enbridge to say that it's such a lousy, high-carbon product that it's not viable if we have to refine it here before export. Force them to show that Athabasca bitumen is a sub-prime asset. Make them show how reckless and short-sighted their bitumen obsession has made them.