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Peter MacKay's bluster over pipelines is thin smoke when it comes to facts

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Peter Mackay, in happier times as Minister of Defence

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There is a catechism of the fossil fuel industry, with oft-repeated claims that seem by repetition to escape examination. Peter MacKay's recent opinion piece on pipelines was a veritable greatest hits compilation of such claims.

He writes that "pipelines are by far the safest means of transporting oil." The first muddying of facts is the notion that we are talking about shipping oil. All the current pipeline proposals, including Energy East, are primarily about shipping unprocessed bitumen. Bitumen is in a pre-crude state and can only be casually referenced as "oil" if one accepted the idea that grain should be referred to as "croissants" when discussing markets.

The second problem with this much-repeated claim is the notion that it is "safest." The claim is not challenged because everyone recalls the tragedy of Lac Mégantic and the unsafe transport of North Dakota Bakken crude by rail. No doubt that shipping highly volatile and explosive Bakken crude is dangerous, by pipeline or rail. Here's the surprising thing: when shipping raw bitumen, rail is the safest mode of transport.

Bitumen is a solid. In order to get bitumen to flow through pipelines, it must be diluted with a solvent, a fossil fuel condensate that industry calls diluent. Once mixed together, the substance is called "dilbit."

Dilbit is very nasty stuff. When it leaks -- and pipelines do have routine accidents and spills -- dilbit has proven itself to be nearly impossible to clean up. In environmental terms, it is messier than the crude that spilled from the Exxon Valdez.

But if bitumen is not diluted and shipped by rail, it is safe as houses. It is warmed enough to fill a rail car, where it solidifies until its final destination, and is warmed again to be removed. Should a rail car of solid bitumen come crashing off a hilltop and land in a stream below, there it would lie in a lump.

Whether we want to ship raw bitumen is a different question, another one that is never asked. Here again is the much-repeated claim in Mr. MacKay's words: "without access to tidewater, Canada will forever be forced to sell Canadian oil and gas to a limited number of markets at discounted prices."

The mantra that "we must get bitumen to tidewater" is number one in the hit parade of industry claims. It goes completely against Peter Lougheed's plans for the oil sands to insist on the export of raw product in a pre-crude state. Exporting raw product, whether raw logs or raw bitumen, ships out jobs. The major labour unions oppose pipelines for this reason.

Until the 2008 financial collapse, building pipelines to export raw bitumen was not the plan. Upgraders were slated for northern Alberta.

When the economic downturn was being shaken off, building upgraders to add value to bitumen by producing synthetic crude (or syncrude) was replaced with pipelines to ship out unprocessed bitumen as fast as possible.

And the next contra-factual assertion is that shipping out raw bitumen somehow makes it easier to rely on domestic supplies. The opposite is the case. If we processed bitumen in Alberta, we would be able to rely on domestic sources.

Mr. MacKay says: "At its core, the choice is between Canada investing in our domestic energy resources or relying on someone else's energy." Yet as we ship out raw bitumen, we import foreign oil.

Unlike the product we ship out in a pre-crude state, we import foreign oil that can be processed in domestic refineries. And to ship raw bitumen, we import fossil fuel condensate and put it in rail cars to reach northern Alberta. The threat of toxic material hanging over the Bow River in the 2013 Calgary floods was actually cars loaded with diluent.

Enbridge's submission to the NEB said the west-east section of its twin pipeline would ship diluent purchased from Saudi Arabia to mix with bitumen in order to ship dilbit the other way in the east-west section.

Why is it Canada has not one refinery capable of processing bitumen? It is fascinating that MacKay's article makes no mention of the falling price of a barrel of oil. The market is slowing development in the oil sands far more than a lack of pipelines. Low oil prices make bitumen production a non-profit activity.

MacKay also goes back to a mantra I haven't heard since Joe Oliver left the Natural Resources portfolio: "It's true that some are opposed to any fossil fuel development, despite analyses by the International Energy Agency that demonstrate unequivocally that the global demand for fossil fuels will increase significantly for the foreseeable future."

Actually, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is one of those organizationsbuttressing the case to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible. The IEA has determined that to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change, at least two-thirds of all known reserves of fossil fuels must remain in the ground until at least 2050.

When you next hear one of these claims from the fossilized hit parade, don't confuse them with facts.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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