What’s in those pipelines?

Elizabeth May

Canadians now have a dizzying array of pipeline proposals dominating news coverage. They are presented as though they are alternative options.

Problems getting pipelines to the US approved? Show Uncle Sam we have other markets and get pipelines to the Pacific coast.

Trouble getting pipelines to the Pacific coast? Head east to the Atlantic.

There is also the major irritant with the Obama administration—what will the President decide about the Keystone XL pipeline?

Then there are the two major threats to BC’s supertanker-free coast, maintained since the imposition of the tanker moratorium in 1972—Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan’s TransMountain expansion to Burnaby.

The reality is all these proposals are not necessarily in the alternative. The Masters of the Fossil Fuel Universe would like to have all of them. The mainstream media dutifully repeats whatever Stephen Harper says about them—even our once great public broadcaster, the CBC.

How is it no one asks, ‘What will be in the pipeline?’

With the advent of unconventional sources of oil and gas, the answer to the question isn’t obvious. While media use the terms ‘oil’ and ‘crude’ interchangeably, most of these pipelines will contain neither. North American known reserves of oil have recently expanded with the development first of unconventional oil sands bitumen-based fuels and the innovations that allow fracking in shale deposits for more unconventional oil.

As the disaster in Lac Magantic made clear, that crude oil in the railcars did not behave like crude oil at all. Crude doesn’t blow up. It burns, but it doesn’t create explosive fireballs. As Ed Belkaloul, the Quebec head of the Transportation Safety Board, put it, the oil behaved in a way ‘that was abnormal’.

What was in that crude? Turns out, no one knows. The nice folks who produced the stuff in North Dakota’s Bakken fields sold it to shipper World Fuel Services (WFS). WFS was not forthcoming about what might be different about the unconventional oil they were shipping. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Rail company (MMA) that got permission from Transport Canada to have the unmanned train left poised above LacMagantic on a main line with 72 railways cars of hazardous product also says they didn’t know it was more dangerous than your average crude.

Since production in North Dakota’s shale has tripled in the last two years, with most of it moving by rail, no regulator or shipper seems to have noticed this might not be crude after all. As the stuff flowed into adjacent streams and rivers, environment officials tried to figure out what was in there. It seems there was a lot of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, which would not ordinarily be found in crude. And likely a lot of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were mixed in with the unconventional oil from the fracking fluids. Until laboratory analysis is completed, it’s just guess work.

The same can be said of the bitumen moving from Alberta. Whether heading west, south or east, before passing judgment on the pipeline proposals, we should be demanding to know what product is in the pipeline.

We can be sure of one thing: it won’t be bitumen alone, because bitumen doesn’t flow. Bitumen needs to be made more fluid/less solid to be shipped by pipeline. There are a few ways to do this.

One is by upgrading, converting the bitumen to synthetic crude. Or, you could do one better and then further refine the synthetic crude so that you are shipping gasoline or other refined petroleum product. The quick and dirty approach is to mix the bitumen with other fossil fuel by-products to make it flowable. The non-scientific word for the solution to make it flow is ‘diluent’ and the mix of bitumen and diluents is ‘dilbit’. The diluent can be any number of chemicals, including natural gas byproduct, Naptha, or, as in the case of the Dilbit Arkansas spill, with added benzene.

One thing about pipelines I have learned in the last few years, since paying a lot of attention to them, is that shippers sending dilbit by pipeline do not have to be overly concerned about contamination with rust or dirt along the shipping route. Bitumen is still such low-grade material that any crud that gets into the mix will be removed in subsequent upgrading and refining. So if you want an internal industry motivation for clean and well-maintained pipelines, pushing for only finished product to be shipped is a good one. It is also the case that no-one, for environmental reasons, should support any pipeline involving dilbit.

For one thing, the transport of diluents to northern Alberta is an environmental risk only created by the industry preference, and governmental negligence, in wanting to export the raw bitumen without value-adding. The train cars that nearly plunged into the Bow River during the Calgary floods in July were loaded with diluents and headed to northern Alberta. Enbridge has already stated in its application to the NEB that it plans to purchase diluents from the Middle East, bring it in tankers to Kitimat to move through the west to east portion of the twinned pipeline. We have ignored an aspect of the environmental cost of shipping dilbit—shipping the diluents.

Then there is the reality that dilbit is far harder (impossible?) to clean up after a spill. The Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill in 2010 is still not cleaned up. Dilbit does not behave like crude in the environment, yet all of Enbridge’s evidence in the NEB hearings is based on behaviour of crude.

Insisting on further processing before leaving northern Alberta is the sensible policy. And it has another advantage: investing in ancillary infrastructure for the upgraders and refineries will not be possible so long as the oil sands are in constant expansion mode. The hyper-inflationary conditions created by an ever-growing number of oilsands mines, driving up daily production, trying to triple it to 6 million barrels per day (Stephen Harper’s goal) is inconsistent with sound management of the enterprise; creating tens of thousands more jobs in processing, before shipping.

So, let’s keep asking: what is in those pipelines? How crude is that crude?

Originally printed in the Island Tides Regional Newspaper.