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Pipelines to the east? The changing direction of the pipeline debate

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Photo: Travis S. / flickr

As the pro-bitumen export crowd notices the gathering storm clouds over their Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan options, and, further south, sees long shadows falling over the Keystone XL pipeline to refineries on the shores of the Texas Gulf coast, support is mobilizing for pipelines running east.

Debate has been about how best to export raw, virtually unprocessed bitumen -- as much as possible and as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the eastern half of Canada depends on imports of foreign oil from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and Norway. As Gordon Laxer of the Parkland Institute tried to point out to a Parliamentary committee (before the Conservative chair ordered him to stop talking and stormed out of the room), Canada has no energy security.

I feel some responsibility for this shift in debate, as I was the first political leader to point out that there was something wrong with the picture.

Related: Sign the petition for an oil-free coast.

Unlike the U.S., we have no Strategic Petroleum Reserves. If there was a blockade of foreign oil or an economic embargo, those in Eastern Canada would have to wait for tankers to bring them bitumen for processing through the Panama Canal and up the eastern seaboard. As bizarre as that sounds, it was the solution offered by a Suncor executive when asked in committee about the vulnerability of eastern Canada to embargos.

Oppositional Canada

The irony is that the dividing line of foreign oil to the east and Alberta oil for the west was the result of deliberate government policy -- aimed at helping the Alberta oil and gas sector. Back in 1961, the National Oil Policy decreed that eastern Canadians (east of the Ottawa River) would only receive imported oil while those in the West had to purchase Alberta product. By deliberate policy, Eastern Canadians became dependent on foreign oil, while Alberta oil was consumed by those in western provinces and exported to the U.S. Now it is time to think like a country.

The solution: Shipping east?

However, the current proposal also makes no sense. Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna has proposed shipping unprocessed bitumen to Saint John, New Brunswick, to put it in tankers to export it from there. Others are proposing refining it in New Brunswick.

The first decision point is Enbridge's application to reverse its Number 9 pipeline. This pipeline was built in the 1970s and had originally flowed west to east. It was reversed in the 1990s as the markets favoured cheaper foreign oil.

Now, Enbridge is applying to reverse it once again, running a different product, dilbit, from west to east. The request to the National Energy Board is being considered in two stand-alone applications; Line 9A (Sarnia to North Westover) and Line 9B to Montreal.

From there the bitumen would likely go south through New England. When I was in Washington D.C., I heard from quite a few Congressmen and Senators that they do not want those pipelines over their territory.


The nature of bitumen and diluents in pipelines is a critical issue in why the Green Party oppose pipelines of unprocessed product to either coastline. So, before talking about the direction of pipelines, we need to talk about the product.

Even after the extensive and intensive process of extracting the viscous material known as bitumen from the soil in which it is found (generally about 10 per cent by volume), it is still not processed to even the level of crude oil. Crude oil can flow. Bitumen cannot. It has the consistency of peanut butter, so needs to be mixed with something else to flow. That something else is called 'diluent' -- a mix of undisclosed chemicals. The most commonly used diluent is a natural gas condensate, similar to Naptha. The public does not know the make-up of any particular diluent. Some have more benzene than others -- benzene is a well-documented carcinogen.

The resulting so-called dilbit product is about 30 per cent diluents and 70 per cent bitumen. We do know a lot more about dilbit than we used to. And we did a lot of that learning through the 2010 Enbridge dilbit spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. We know it both floats and sinks; that it is far harder and far more expensive to clean-up than unprocessed conventional crude. The Kalamazoo spill is still not cleaned up.

Meanwhile a debate rages about whether dilbit is more likely to cause pipeline failure. Cornell University found that between 2007 and 2010 pipelines carrying dilbit had a spill-rate three times higher than pipelines carrying conventional crude. Oil sands products have a higher sulfur and a higher acidic content than conventional crude and those properties could explain its increased corrosive nature.

This finding led to the Department of Natural Resources to commissioning a study by a group called Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (ATIF). That study compared dilbit and conventional crudes and concluded the types of corrosive compounds between the two products were comparable. So we have labwork versus the real life rate of spills in US pipelines. At the moment, despite what Harper's Cabinet ministers claim, the science on the corrosive nature of dilbit is not settled.

Meanwhile, if local residents along the Number 9 pipeline wish to speak before the NEB hearings, or even submit a letter, they are required to fill out a 10-page form, and are also encouraged to submit references and a resume! This is an NEB effort to meet the new requirements imposed by the horrific overhaul of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that took place last year in the Omnibus Budget Bill (C-38).

Unlike the previous CEAA, which was premised on a fundamental commitment to rights of public participation, the Harperized CEAA restricts access to only those 'directly affected'. The NEB has made this restriction even worse by demanding that any citizens who want to make comments, fill out the forms and apply within a two-week period -- which will close before this article will be in print.

Refineries in Alberta

So, what should be done? The best environmental, economic and climate outcome would be to slow down the boom-and-bust cycle of constant expansion in the oil sands. What the late Peter Lougheed used to describe as the 'traffic jam' of feverish expansion in the oilsands prevents the construction of ancillary infrastructure, like upgraders and refineries.

The hyper-inflationary bubble that sits on northern Alberta is what makes it cheaper for Big Oil to build a $7 billion pipeline to Texas, rather than build facilities in Alberta. Any reasonable carbon plan would set a level of managed growth for oil sands production -- say 2 million barrels of oil a day (more than the current 1.7 million barrels, but less than Harper's goal of 6 million barrels of oil a day). That level of production could cool down the capital and labour markets enough to build upgraders and refineries near the resource. Then, we could be talking about shipping -- by pipeline, truck or train -- a finished product whose properties are better understood. Shipping a product with a far lower risk of environmental impact in the event of spills.

If we are thinking like a country, we should get Alberta oil to Eastern Canada, but we should not ship bitumen and diluents.

Photo: Travis S. / flickr

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