No secret I'm opposed to both Kinder Morgan and Northern Gateway. A sizeable majority of British Columbians are of the same mind but a significant minority supports the pipeline initiatives. In situations like this it can be helpful to seek out areas of agreement, common ground.
Here's an idea we should all be able to endorse. If you insist on shipping Athabasca oil to Asia, why not ship oil? That may sound facetious but it's not.
Bad as these pipelines are, they're made far worse by what Ottawa and Alberta want to push through them - dilbit. Dilbit is bitumen mixed with a light oil condensate called a diluent. Bitumen is just too sludgy to push through a pipeline. It's full of acids, toxins, heavy metals and, of course, petroleum coke or "petcoke
," a granular and very high carbon form of sulfur-rich coal. To get it through a pipeline you have to dilute it with condensate. Even then you have to heat the mixture and propel it with powerful pumps to get it moving through the pipeline.
Pipeline opponents have plenty of reason to object to dilbit pipelines. You're taking a product that is full of corrosives and forcing it through a pipeline under high pressure. If you want to know what that pressurized corrosive does to a pipeline you might ask the authorities in Kalamazoo, Michigan
. Yes, and that was an Enbridge pipeline.
British Columbians have ample reason for concern because a Kalamazoo-type spill here would likely happen in the mountainous wilderness where Enbridge intends to run Northern Gateway. That would make it more difficult to detect and extremely difficult to get crews and equipment in to attempt clean up. A spill into a fast-moving mountain stream would spread rapidly, confounding clean up efforts and endangering the ecology for great distances. Enbridge repeatedly balked at cleaning up Kalamazoo. How would the company respond to a far more difficult and enormously more costly clean up in British Columbia?
Another cause for concern is the prospect of a supertanker catastrophe. Navigating those northern coastal waters with their currents and tides is challenging on a good day and, up there, good days are not abundant. When you're tasked with moving the volumes of dilbit Enbridge is planning for Northern Gateway, you have to keep tankers sailing in and out no matter the conditions and that is a formula for disaster.
Dilbit, because of all the sludge in it, sinks. The condensate separates out and floats to the surface where it dissipates. The bitumen component congeals and heads for the bottom which, in a lot of places up there, can be 600-feet down and neither the governments nor Enbridge has anything that can clean up a deepwater spill like that.
So, where is this elusive common ground? I think both sides should be able to rule out the dilbit option/problem. How can that be done? Refine the product on site in Athabasca. Do it there, at the source. Then, once you have refined out all the garbage, all you'll be transporting is conventional crude oil. The product you send to market won't be bitumen or diluted bitumen. The acids, the abrasives, the toxins and heavy metals, the carcinogens and the petcoke will be removed and dealt with on site in Alberta where they belong.
That doesn't mean we'd be okay with it. The 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe
, after all, was a conventional oil spill,the ship didn't even sink, and, a quarter century later, Prince William Sound still isn't cleaned up. However refined oil that floats is vastly preferable to hazmat oil that sinks and coats the bottom for generations, poisoning the entire marine habitat.
Another major factor is that transporting fully refined conventional crude oil significantly cuts the volume of product shipped. The condensate isn't in there. The crud isn't in there. All of that is removed and left behind in Alberta. That refining process would allow a major reduction of up to 40% in the number of supertanker trips required to get the product to overseas markets. The more tanker trips you have the more groundings or sinkings you'll have. It's that simple. Even pipeline supporters can understand that.
Bear in mind that the stuff Big Oil and its governmental minions want to ship, dilbit, still has to be refined somewhere. That somewhere will be in Asia where they'll have to refine out not only the condensate but also all the crud, including the pet coke, out of the bitumen. So what could be the objection to refining the goop in Athabasca?
What we're usually told is that it would be uneconomical to refine bitumen in Alberta. Overseas markets, we're told, have unused refining capacity. So what? We could not only address the hazmat issue but also create a lot of jobs and revenue by refining Athabasca bitumen on site.
I suspect the on-site refining option would be refused because it would add an unbearable burden to the sleight-of-hand trick used to portray the Tar Sands as a huge money maker. It would also leave Alberta responsible for the energy requirements and emissions related to the refining process.
So you can see how, to a British Columbian, this smacks of a set up. We have to accept the risk of a potentially catastrophic hazmat spill to bolster the bottom line of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. They're externalizing the risks, offloading them on the province and people of British Columbia, and we're being told they're doing it as of right.
That they're dealing us cards from a stacked deck is obvious. One by one, Harper has stripped us of our safeguards. He moved the West Coast oil spill emergency centre to Quebec. He shut down entire sections of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans responsible for monitoring our coastal marine habitat. He trashed fisheries regulations. He closed essential Coast Guard installations. He gutted the navigation regulations to accommodate the supertanker armada. He set up an utterly fraudulent environmental review process, plainly sculpted to deliver a scripted result. He's engaged the state security apparatus to spy on environmentalists. Now you tell me this federal government isn't already at war with us.
When taken in the context of this litany of skulduggery, the refusal to refine this bitumen on site in Alberta can be seen in a plain light for what it is - a deliberate choice to expose British Columbia to enormous risks by transporting hazmat - hazardous materials - through highly risky conditions while simultaneously stripping us of every means we ever had to respond to catastrophe.