A layman’s guide to the behaviour of diluted bitumen in a marine spill

Having listened to the arguments for and against the Energy East and the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) projects one of the things that really struck me was the low quality of the scientific knowledge used in the debates. As I noted in my previous post; it is becoming clear that many of the activists are low information voters who care little about intellectual rigour preferring to spout talking points. As I described in my post about the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project Langley Open House besides not even knowing what the legal filings say the TMX will carry, the activists are also quite uninformed about how diluted bitumen behaves in a marine spill. The intention of this post is to clear up some of those misconceptions by providing a layman’s guide to what the technical literature says on the topic.

Now if you are an activist then you don’t have to read this post. That is because you already “know” that “diluted bitumen sinks”. How do you know this? Because the good people at DeSmogCanada told you so. Unfortunately, such simplistic answers are what you receive when you get your science from a political theorist and philosopher filtered through the lens of a team of public relations professionals. Myself, I prefer to read the actual reports that form the basis of the science.

For those interested in the actual science; here are three documents that will give you a solid initial understanding of the topic. From Canada we have the Environment Canada technical report on the topic:

Properties, Composition and Marine Spill Behaviour, Fate and Transport of Two Diluted Bitumen Products from the Canadian Oil Sands.

From the US we have the National Academies of Science (NAS) report on the subject:

Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines: A Comparative Study of Environmental Fate, Effects, and Response (2016)

And finally for comparison purposes we have a very recent Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report:

The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments (2015)

The RSC document is not solely about diluted bitumen, per se, but about how all crude oils behave when spilled in aqueous environments. Readers can look at it to determine if dilbit is anything special.

Now the vast majority of the activists I have spoken with like to refer to the US study. It is very funny how parochial Canadian activists can be. They seem to have a base belief that work done in the United States must, by definition, be superior to anything done in Canada. This, however, is far from the truth. You see, the NAS report was intended to address a regulatory purpose and not a scientific one. They didn’t design any experiments; conduct any practical studies; or do any hands-on research. The NAS report represents a state-of-the-literature report that was intended to address a regulatory requirement governing “spill response planning, preparedness, and clean-up”. Because of the nature of their report the authors made a number of inferences (best guesses for the non-technical) that apparently were then run through a political filter that considered the “practical and policy aspects of our [their] recommendations” prior to publication. That is not how science is supposed to be carried out in the scientific community. It is, however, how it is done in the highly-politicized world of US politics and energy regulations.

An examination of the NAS report (and more importantly its list of references) shows that virtually all of the recent practical (in situ and in-lab) results are derived from a limited number of technical papers, the most prominent being the Environment Canada report and a number of original papers prepared by the good folks at Fisheries and Oceans Canada; especially the research group headed by Thomas L. King (no relation). The rest of the NAS report consists of examinations of older work and policy recommendations which, in my opinion, give insufficient weight to the actual science while relying too heavily on speculation based on the general chemical characteristics of the substance. As I pointed out in my previous post on this subject:

My initial expectations were shattered as the literature I had on hand (which was only about 5 years old) made a lot of assumptions that have been overtaken by the most recent literature (the Environment Canada Technical Report).

That is to say, the recent research results demonstrate quite conclusively that depending solely on general chemical characteristics will leave you completely on the wrong side of the current state of the science when it comes to diluted bitumen. The chemistry of these complex mixtures is still too confusing to trust basic theories based on general features like the presence of selected functional groups. As such, the remainder of this post will rely on the actual research conducted by people with budgets to get their hands dirty and test the substances under consideration. Because I have already reviewed much of that original research, the next section of this post is mostly made up from an earlier blog post I prepared on dilbit spills which I wrote when I first evaluated the Environment Canada technical report. For referencing purposes any physical data/observations in the next few paragraphs are straight out of the Environment Canada technical report, although I will add some additional details (which are referenced).

Let’s start with the basics, what is dilbit? Dilbit consists of a mixture of 20% to 30% diluent and 70% to 80% bitumen. The bitumen is exactly what you think it is and the diluent is typically a light-hydrocarbon mixture (like naptha) called “condensate”. The condensate has a specific gravity in the 0.6 g/mL to 0.8 g/mL range and the resultant dilbit has density/specific gravity that ranges from around 0.92 g/mL to about 0.94 g/mL. Since we know that freshwater has a density of 1 g/mL and that seawater density ranges from 1.025 g/mL to 1.033 g/mL that means that when spilled any dilbit will initially float. I’m saying nothing new here. What is new is what happens as the diltbit weathers. Historically it was believed that as the dilbit weathered the diluent would all evaporate away and the resulting evaporated mass would sink. Well, the research says that this is not the case.

Laboratory studies by Environment Canada show that even with a 26.5% evaporation rate (thus with pretty much all the diluent evaporated) the resultant evaporated dilbit still retains a specific gravity (at 0oC) of 1.021 g/mL. Thus the material would not sink in marine spills, as we were previously led to believe, but would actually remain afloat. More interestingly, when lighter oils are hit with breaking waves they form small droplets that lack the buoyancy to float and will often remain entrained in the water column. The dilbit did not act in this way. Rather when the experimental dilbit was exposed to the wave pool, it formed much larger droplets which they called “oil balls” that quickly resurfaced and coalesced into a surface slick. This actually makes dilbit easier to skim off the surface early in a spill event.

The Achilles heel of the dilbit, however, appears to be sediments in the water. Oils exposed to silty water will form oil-particle aggregates (OPAs) which under certain conditions will sink to the bottom. Remember the DeSmogCanada report? This is what they are talking about. In the Environment Canada research when they mixed the spilled dilbit with high concentrations of a very fine type of clay called “kaolin” virtually all the bitumen either dispersed or formed OPAs and sunk to the bottom of the wave tank. Similarly, when the bitumen was exposed to very high concentrations of diatomaceous earth the same thing happened. When the dilbit was exposed to sands, however, the OPAs were not formed and the material instead formed droplets that were highly resistant to sinking and floated strongly on the surface.

Now what the good people at DeSmogCanada failed to apparently understand is that concentrations of clays and silts that high are not typically seen in Canadian nearshore environments. As Environment Canada pointed out, in the Burrard Inlet spill of 2007 virtually no OPA was formed. So while the intertidal zones were badly oiled, the subtidal marine harbour sediments were virtually unaffected by the spill.

Modelling exercises have been done by Fisheries and Oceans Canada using our local conditions and for the approximate sediment load and characteristics of the Douglas Channel. The result was a conclusion that approximately 20% of the diluted bitumen would form oil-particle aggregates which would sink below the sea surface, with little of that material actually sinking to the sea bottom. Coincidentally, that is pretty much the same behaviour one would expect from a typical crude oil spill. A stochastic model of an oil spill in the Salish Sea suggests that the majority of the oil would stay on the surface, and accumulate on the shoreline, rather than dispersing into water column. Once again a spill would be a tragedy, but the behaviour of the diluted bitumen would be no different from a similar crude oil spill.

Now in freshwater environments the effects will not be nearly as clear-cut. Since freshwater is less dense than seawater whether the bitumen will sink or float becomes far more dependent on the source material and ambient temperature. As the NAS study indicates highly-weathered Cold Lake Blend will retain a density less than 1 g/mL (it will float) while Access Western Blend will reach a density above 1 g/mL (it will sink). We also have to consider environmental conditions. Consider the Kalamazoo spill which occurred during a heavy rainfall event where the river was filled with sediments. In that case the events conspired to produce a scenario where a huge percentage of the material formed OPAs and sank to the bottom. What is most interesting about that case is that under those conditions a typical crude oil spill would likely have behaved in a very similar manner. At those sediments levels OPAs were inevitable.

To conclude this post I want to make something abundantly clear. Any oil spill, be it crude oil or diluted bitumen, represents a tragedy and catastrophe (after all consider that the Fisheries and Oceans model of a Salish Sea spill determined that most of the spilled material, not captured by the recovery efforts, would “accumulate on the coastline”). The point of this blog post, however, is to establish whether a diluted bitumen spill would be a uniquely catastrophic situation. Since that is what the anti-pipeline activists fighting Energy East and TMX keep insisting. In response to that question the answer is clear: diluted bitumen does not represent a singular, existential threat to the environment.

This fact is very important because when we are talking about Energy East and TMX we are not talking about a scenario where we either have or do not have oil being transported. Rather we are talking about whether we have Canadian oil or foreign oil transported and how it is moving. The refineries in St John and Quebec still need raw materials to operate, and those raw materials are being shipped via tankers that run through Canadian coastal waters and, for the Quebec refineries, down the St. Lawrence River. Similarly, the oil that supplies the refineries in the Puget Sound has been coming via tankers through the Salish Sea for 20+ years. Both Energy East and TMX will also displace a lot of oil currently being transported by rail.

What the research clearly indicates is that dilbit is not uniquely dangerous to the environment, rather the research says the opposite: that dilbit in a marine environment behaves in a very similar manner to crude oil. As discussed in the research, dlibit is slightly stickier than crude so forms OPAs slightly more effectively than crude. This means that in high sediment environments dilbit will likely sink a bit faster than other crudes. But as a consequence of its stickiness dilbit does not disperse into the water column as readily as some crude oils, instead it forms bigger, more buoyant oil balls that are less likely to be broken up by ocean surfs and are more readily recoverable from the surface.

I will say this again (because I cannot say it enough) any oil spill is to be avoided which means we should be shipping oil in the safest manner possible. On the topic of spills there is one fact upon which all the references agree. For convenience I will simply quote from the RAS:

the overall impact of an oil spill, including the effectiveness of an oil spill response, depends mainly on the environmental characteristics, the conditions where the spill takes place and the speed of response.

Ultimately the government of British Columbia’s point in this discussion is critical. Any increase in the volume of oil transported, be it crude or diluted bitumen, should only occur if it is accompanied by a significant increase in resources for oil spill planning and response. Having plans in place and the resources to carry out those plans immediately at hand will make all the difference in the case of a spill be it diluted bitumen, crude oil or even bunker fuel from a passing freighter.

Author’s note: I have edited the section on the NAS as a regular reader suggests I was being too harsh about it. In my original version I called it: “re-hash of the Canadian work with a lot of guesswork attached” . My re-write clarifies that the NAS was a report aimed at a regulatory purpose and lacked the original content of the Canadian work. My apologies if anyone was offended by the original wording.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Chemistry and Toxicology, Energy East, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

When anti-pipeline activist pretend that facts don’t matter

In my last post I bemoaned the lack of intellectual rigour among the activists fighting pipeline expansion in BC, Ontario and Quebec. I thought I had presented three pretty solid examples where the opponents of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) and the Energy East Project were demonstrating their lack of insight/intellectual rigour. Well in the last few days I have come to realize that I have not come close to plumbing the depths of this topic. This week it has become clear that for some of these anti-pipeline activists it is not just a case of them making honest mistakes; instead it appears that for many of these activists the facts don’t even appear to matter.

The basis for this post started with a tweet from the Dogwood Initiative:

Can you believe the bias of this panel member reviewing #KinderMorgan? Bitumen exports don’t fuel BC cars. #cdnpoli

The tweet included an embedded video of a question posed by one of the TMX Ministerial Project panelists to the people making presentations at a Public Open House. This started a discussion between myself and Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative that concluded with him reiterating a “fact” that I had repeatedly shown to be wrong. This was subsequently followed by another conversation, this one with a representative from PipeUpNetwork, that ended the same way. These incidents make it clear that many of the people on the “anti-” side of the pipeline debate are so lackadaisical that they can’t even be bothered to become informed about the project they are fighting.

To explain, let’s start with the Dogwood Initiative tweet. In the video embedded in the tweet Mr. Penikett, one of the three panelists, asks “how many of them [the activists] own motor vehicles?” The Dogwood Initiative representative was outraged because “bitumen exports don’t fuel BC cars” and likened the question to one posed repeatedly by noted rabble-rouser Ezra Levant, who likes to ask anti-pipeline people whether they drive an automobile? The intention of Mr. Levant’s question is to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the protestors by pointing out that they rely daily on the product against which they are protesting. Mr. Penikett’s question was a bit more nuanced and addresses a common misconception about the Trans Mountain upgrade: that the pipeline upgrade is only about bitumen and only about overseas exports, both of which are demonstrably untrue.

That misconception was highlighted in a brief Twitter exchange I had with Will Horter from the Dogwood Initiative where I sought clarification about the tweet. On Monday, Mr. Horton retweeted the Dogwood Initiative tweet with the comment:

 I was disturbed that Trudeau appointed #KinderMorgan panelist would ask such an irrelevant question! #StopKM #bcpoli

I replied by noting the obvious fact that the TMX includes an expansion of the capacity of the system for refined fuels that would indeed “fuel BC’s cars“:

.@willhorter probably because people ignoring that Line 1 of @TransMtn is primarily for refined fuels which do run West Coast autos #cdnpoli

His reply represents complete befuddlement. He simply did not know that the TMX expansion included the existing pipeline:

.@BlairKing_ca  Sorry, but hearings r about @TransMtn expansion not existing line 1/2 #cdnpoli #StopKM #KinderMorgan

 My reply was to explain that it was all in the National Energy Board (NEB) filings:

.@willhorter you are kidding aren’t you? The plan is integrated and includes both lines. This is in the filings @TransMtn

This discussion pretty much sums up the state of the debate on the TMX project. The people fighting the project literally do not know what the project they are fighting entails! To explain, the Trans-Mountain expansion has two proposed lines: Line 1 would consist of additions and improvement on the existing pipeline which will allow it to transport 350,000 b/d of refined petroleum products and light crude with almost no heavy crude.

The filings make it clear that Line 1 is intended to be primarily for refined products and light crude. Line 1 has the possibility of helping to mitigate the supply bottleneck that has Vancouver drivers paying such high prices for gasoline and diesel and leaves us high and dry when a refinery in California has a failure or an unplanned shutdown happens in the Puget Sound. Ironically for the people who claim we should “refine bitumen in Canada”, Line 1 will make it possible for the new Sturgeon Refinery to get the liquids fuels, it refines from bitumen, to market. The Sturgeon refinery is exactly what the activists are asking for: a refinery that turns bitumen into refined products in Canada, but it has one difficulty; it lacks access to markets for that refined fuel. Here we could refine bitumen in Canada and sell the refined product in Canada, if only we have the capacity to transport that material to market?…and the activists are fighting the project that would make it happen?

The proposed Line 2 would have a capacity of 540,000 b/d and is allocated to the transportation of heavy crude and bitumen to Vancouver for export but, apparently unbeknownst to the activists, those “foreign exports” include supplying the Sumas pipeline to the Puget Sound. This will reduce the amount of crude that has to travel to the Puget Sound by rail or via tanker (you know the tankers that the activists do not realize have been shipping up to 600,000 b/d of Alaskan crude have down the coast of B.C., in tankers, and into the Puget Sound for the last 20 years). The Puget Sound refineries supply much of the coast with its current refined fuel needs.

This new pipeline and configuration setup would, add 590,000 b/d to the existing system for a total capacity of 890,000 b/d. If you only listened to the activists, as demonstrated by Mr. Horter’s comments, you would think that the project only involved Line 2 and Line 2 was 100% dedicated to bitumen exports overseas, both of which are demonstrably not true.

Now to be clear here, I am not quoting from “top secret” documents that Russian hackers pulled off of a well-defended server somewhere. I am quoting from the regulatory filings for the Trans Mountain project. Yet the project lead from one of the biggest, best-funded and loudest groups fighting the pipeline expansion apparently does not know this information?

Now if you think this is simply a one-off you would be wrong. I had a similar discussion with Michael Hale from PipeUpNetwork where he made the same error.

@BlairKing_ca @dogwoodbc: Who told you that, Blair. Not Kinder Morgan. They are very clear. The line will transport diluted bitumen. #StopKM

As with my previous discussion I sent him to the NEB filings which demonstrated that his claim did not hold water:

@Sunfolk the Trans Mountain filings told me http://transmountain.s3.amazonaws.com/application14/V2_PROJ_OVERVIEW/042.html …  or look here

He proceeded to sidestep, ignoring what the filings actually say, and changed the topic to discuss the Chevron facility in Vancouver and exports to Puget Sound. We had a long discussion where I pointed out that much of our current “exports” actually consist of oil shipped via the Sumas pipeline to the Puget Sound and is then re-imported to BC to meet our refined fuels needs. These exports via the Sumas line have actually resulted in a severe reduction of the marine exports of oil from Vancouver. So having shown him how the export of bitumen actually ends up serving the BC market what was Mr Hale’s conclusion?

@BlairKing_ca The pipeline will supply our needs? Not the bitumen, which is all for export. The crude, increasingly is refined in the U.S.

So after an hour of discussion, the representative of a major activist organization, fighting the pipeline, continues to repeat errors that have been thoroughly debunked by the actual documents  in the NEB filings.

Now if it were simply a couple activists it wouldn’t be a big deal, but these misconceptions about the pipeline expansion are widely held; as I pointed out in my previous post about the Langley Open House. You can imagine Mr. Penikett’s frustration at this point. He has to sit there day-after-day listening to people who talk endlessly about their opposition to a project that only exists in their fevered imaginations. They talk and talk about massive bitumen exports to China while ignoring the fact that, according to the NEB filings, much of the pipeline capacity will be used to feed the Puget Sound and California refineries that supply British Columbia with much of its liquid fuels. These people have no clue about the real TMX project and instead are fighting a bogeyman created for them, whole cloth, by the activist community. These activists, meanwhile, appear not to have even bothered to read the submissions for the project they oppose. Instead these activists appear to be just making things up and seem totally okay with that idea. Is there any question why Mr.Penikett asked that question? Frankly I don’t know how he keeps from screaming “read the NEB submission” at least a dozen times a day?


Posted in Energy East, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain | 10 Comments

On the absence of intellectual rigour and honesty in the pipeline debate

Well it seems that with the re-commencement of the NEB hearings on the Energy East project and the Trans-Mountain consultations all I seem to be talking about these days is pipelines. As a pragmatic environmentalist I find this disheartening, not because of the discussions, but because of the absence of intellectual rigour and honesty in the discussions. As a supporter of evidence–based decision making, I am sick and tired of sitting idly by as activists make outrageous claims that are either demonstrably wrong or unsupported by any data. In doing so these people are actually putting human health and the environment at increased risk from spills and accidents. The problem is: I’m really not sure how the supporters of evidence-based decision-making have a chance when confronted by these activists. The following post will explain where I am coming from.

Yesterday I had my first experience with being interviewed on cable TV with a spot on Power & Politics on CBC where I spoke in an interview paired with Daniel Cayley-Daoust an anti-Energy East activist who was introduced as representing the Council of Canadians. A link to the full episode is here (we come in at about the 4 minute mark). What I found very surprising about the interview was how Mr. Calyley-Daoust repeatedly made statements that were demonstrably untrue and he seemed utterly unfazed when this was pointed out to him. He initially made a statement that was demonstrably wrong and when confronted with the facts simply repeated the misinformation twice. His first statement (at 6:41 minutes) was that:

…we [presumably the Council of Canadians] are arguing that we already have enough [pipeline] capacity for our current needs and we need to face our addiction to oil….

I challenged him on the point and his initial reply was surprisingly precise (at 8:00 minutes) he said:

….and right now the pipeline capacity is good into 2022 to 2023…

I challenged him again and once again he said (at the 10 minute mark):

….there have been multiple studies that show that for the quantity of oil we want to produce in the next few years we’ve got the capacity right now. I don’t think it’s a rail versus pipeline debate, it is about reducing our overall need…

His repeated statements represent a load of hogwash. Anyone with the time can go to Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) website and download the 2016 CAPP Crude Oil Forecast, Markets & Transportation report and see that we don’t have a single pipeline supplying crude to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John and that the majority of the crude going to the Quebec refineries travels partially by rail. Don’t trust CAPP? Then go to the NEB website where they show the same thing (only in less user-friendly formats). The problem is that either Mr. Cayley-Daoust knew this information and chose to disregard it, or did not know this information but felt comfortable spouting off incorrect information unconcerned with establishing its veracity when confronted with his error.

Really I can’t decide which is more troubling? The individual introduced as representing the Council of Canadians either lacks the intellectual rigour to find out where the oil used in eastern Canada comes from, even as he acts as their spokesperson on the file; or that he knows the truth and is willing to mislead the public about it on live television? Since Mr. Cayley-Daoust claims that the pipeline capacity exists, he can then ignore the relative risks of pipelines versus oil-by-rail in subsequent discussions and thus he sounds almost rational. Ultimately, this allows him to claim that the pipeline poses increased risks to communities while ignoring the greater risk posed by the alternatives by simply ignoring, or not knowing, the truth.

In a similar vein, on the irrationality of the anti-pipeline crew, was a discussion I had online with a Mr. Graham Chivers on Twitter. Mr. Chivers who styles himself as an expert in mechatronics is a regular commentor on the topic of pipelines. This morning he demanded that:

All hydrocarbon transport should B halted until #6Sigma #Quality compliance is established

I pointed out to him the difficulty that halting all hydrocarbon transport would have on Canadian society and the economy and he seemed nonplussed. It is amazing to recognize how little these modern environmental activists understand. As I discussed in a previous post, if we eliminated all fossil fuels tomorrow we would witness the complete collapse of our society and an absolute ecological apocalypse as it happened. Any transition has to be gradual and accompanied by increases in alternative fuels and the development of new transportation technologies to fill the existing technology gaps.

Continuing our discussion Mr. Chivers later demanded that I provide “the unsubsidized cost of a barrel of #DilBit?” To be clear he didn’t want the price of bitumen on the open market but the actual cost of production for a barrel of dilbit? I pointed out to him that different facilities produce bitumen under differing cost structures and this expert in STEM and “climate” appeared to believe that I was keeping this cost of a barrel of bitumen a secret. I explained that there are low cost producers and high cost producers and gave some ranges of costs and he still didn’t get it. I replied by asking his “what is the price of a car” to produce an analogy that he might understand and he still didn’t get it. We concluded our discussion when he informed me that:

When U can produce a figure 4 the unsubsidized cost of #DilBit, we can proceed in this discussion

Honestly how do you debate a person who cannot even understand that different facilities using different technologies to extract different grades of materials from different geographical locations might have differing cost structures? That doesn’t rise to the level of funny, it is simply sad and irrational. Yet his colleagues were re-tweeting our exchange excitedly as they assured each other that he was teaching me a lesson because I could not produce this mythical number?

My final example of the day addresses the latest lunacy from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC has started a program to try and get a “tar sands oil tanker moratorium in U.S. and Canadian waters”. This being their way of fighting Energy East: by eliminating one of the major markets for the oil. I was directed to this program by the friendly people at For the Coast. For the Coast is another of those innumerable anti-oil groups that spring up on the west coast when someone (usually a foreign pressure group) has some money they want to spend on professional activists. Like “Tanker Free BC” these folks broadcast to their acolytes while blocking any alternative viewpoints on their feeds. By living in their own little information-free echo chambers they can avoid discovering what the rest of the world (including other less extremist environmentalists) have to say on any topic.

What got me banned at Save the Coast was my pointing out how impractical the NRDC plan really was. To explain: the NRDC wants to single out and ban the transportation of one grade of oil (bitumen) that comes from one single country (Canada). In a prior post I discussed how international trade agreements work with respect to the environment (More on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Environment). One of the major points of that post was to explain that these trade agreements are typically designed to discourage non-tariff barriers to trade. Well, not surprisingly, NAFTA has a number of these provisions, as the people from the NRDC must surely know. To single out Canadian bitumen for a non-tariff barrier like the tanker ban would immediately run afoul of NAFTA.

Now I recognize that President Obama is at the end of his final term, but even a President in his last year is not going to throw that kind of hand-grenade into the room knowing that his likely successor was going to be a Democrat. Were President Obama to do as the NRDC asked, Canada (and TransCanada) would file a complaint under NAFTA and there is simply no way that the US could win that fight. You see daily the U.S. imports crude oil with similar characteristics from places like Mexico and Venezuela via tanker. Any oil tanker embargo that targeted Canada while ignoring those other countries’ oil would necessarily fail and then the US would be out millions/billions of dollars in fines. It is clear the NRDC knows this fact; it is thus pretty clear why the tanker ban website has a big “donate” section on its bottom. It couldn’t conceivably be a legitimate plan; rather it appears to simply be a way to generate donations for their coffers.

Now let’s consider what the people on the pro-side of the debate have working for them. They, too, have a large and well-funded infrastructure but they have one important limitation: they have to tell the truth. You see, like myself, most of these people are members of professional organizations and have what are called “revocable professional designations”. For those of you not familiar with the topic let me provide some detail. I attended university, completed and successfully defended my thesis, and was awarded a PhD. Once awarded a PhD, it is mine for life and can only be removed through processes that take the word “onerous” to another level. In essence a PhD is an irrevocable designation, and mine, regardless of any further achievements or infamies.

The essentially irrevocable nature of a PhD makes it a pretty useless degree for compliance and regulatory purposes. Instead in the professional fields we have revocable professional designations. I have written a lot about the value of revocable professional designations  in this blog post. Suffice it to say, that misbehaviour on my part, irrespective of whether it occurs on the clock or off the clock, can result in my professional organization withdrawing my professional designation. Without that designation I cannot practice in my field. Needless to say I value my designation highly and am careful to never cross the line. While Chemists and Biologists are tough on their people, the Engineers are even tougher. To even bad-mouth another engineer can get you stripped of your P.Eng or P.Geo. Now most of the people working on the pro-side of this debate are professional engineers or geoscientists, their work is covered under the rules of their professional organizations and their ethics enforcement mechanisms. As such, they don’t dare lie or misinform the public.

To summarize this post, what we have is an incredibly lopsided battle in the field of pipeline politics. On one side are pipeline proponents who are restricted from misleading the public thanks to a code of ethics that prevents them from even saying bad things about many of of the people on the other side. On the anti-side of the debate are people who are often being paid to generate an outcome and have no restrictions on how they accomplish their goals: from civil disobedience; to lying; to deliberate ignorance; all is open to them. Often they attack not to win, but simply to generate press and donations. Unfortunately, the press is often unaware of the realities of this lopsided battle and assumes that each side starts the day with equal amounts of credibility. The result is like the Moscow Olympics in 1980 where clean athletes from Europe (the US and Canada boycotted the games) played sports against the first generation of steroid enhanced iron curtain athletes in what has been called “The Chemist’s Games”. The clean teams never stood a chance.

Posted in Energy East, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Husky oil spill, its effects on the pipeline debate and a thought experiment about a world without fossil fuels

It has now been over a week since the Husky Oil Spill in the North Saskatchewan River. To date I have resisted writing much on the topic as details on the spill have been scarce and contradictory. As a blogger who prides himself on reporting reliable information, the information about the spill was not good enough to justify a blog post.

Today a trickle of information was released by Husky on the spill. So what do we know now that we didn’t know a week ago? First and foremost we now know that the 250,000 L spill was not diluted bitumen (dilbit), as has been suggested by many, but was rather a conventional oil called HLU Blended LLB Heavy Crude Oil but known better by its common named “Llloyd Blend”. Lloyd Blend is a “heavy sour” meaning it has a relatively low API and high sulphur content. Of particular importance it has an average density of about 922 kg/m3 (specific gravity of 0.922 when compared to a specific gravity of pure water of 1.0) and thus will float. Unlike dilbit, it does not typically get transported with any substantial amounts of diluents so all those fears of oil “and other toxins” can be laid to rest. That is not to say that the material is not bad stuff, but a conventional oil spill is easier to clean up than a dilbit spill, in a freshwater environment.

From a remediation perspective, Lloyd Blend will actually respond in a very similar way to the “dilbit in the ocean scenario” I described in this post. Since conventional oil is that much lighter than bitumen, most of the material will float in freshwater even after substantial volatization (unlike dilbit which eventually becomes denser than fresh water and sinks). Like any heavy hydrocarbon, some material will become affixed to aquatic sediments that will eventually get heavy enough to sink as “tar balls”. As a crude with a specific gravity less than 1, most of the material will initially float and can be (has been) captured by floating booms. As described in the press about half of the material has already been recovered while much of the material that has escaped is now coating the river’s edges for kilometers downstream especially at the curves. For remediation purposes there is less likely to be a large reservoir of semi-solid material on the river bottom that will need dredging and as the Saskatchewan Environment official suggested a lot of the material will never be recovered. That means that as the consultant for Husky suggested much of the material that remains in the river will have to degrade through natural attenuation.

As for the remediation efforts, Husky claims to have cleaned 9 km of shoreline and presumably has a lot more to do in the foreseeable future. Regarding water quality, according to Husky:

Laboratory results are complete for more than 900 of the water samples, and the primary indicators of the oil (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes (BTEX), total hydrocarbon fractions (F1-F4), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) have shown exceedances of applicable Canadian drinking water guidelines in five samples within 20 km. No additional exceedances have been detected in any samples at any location since July 24, 2016, including the water intakes at North Battleford and Prince Albert. Furthermore, no exceedances of agricultural water quality guidelines have been detected to date.

Husky also provided a map of where their sampling has taken place. If we are to believe their data, the initial results proximate to the spill initially exceeded the drinking water standards but further results met the standards; pretty much the scenario I painted out for a gasoline/diesel spill in a river in my earlier post.

Now this data release represents a useful first step, but is not nearly enough to calm anyone’s fears. I would expect that the Province will insist that the actual raw results from the sampling program be made available to the public, and am frankly surprised that Husky did not do that in the first place. Not providing that data raises all kinds of red flags and leaves me wondering what they are hiding.

Frankly, I don’t think Husky is helping itself, or the greater petroleum producing community with the way it has handled this spill. The fact that we only found out what was spilled over a week after the spill is ridiculous, especially considering how opponents of the oil industry have been using this spill for all it is worth. As I mentioned, this spill has coincided with the the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel consultation period and the spill was a major talking point at the event I attended with more than one speaker describing it as a “dilbit spill” and a reason to not build the pipeline.

Now, unlike a blogger, the news agencies couldn’t just sit and wait on the story which resulted in some very mixed results. Some news outlets stuck to the facts like Global and CBC while some others just went out and started reporting guesses  as well as information that is demonstrably wrong. Consider this National Observer article that claims that both Prince Albert and North Battleford had their water supplies “immediately contaminated”. I suppose that is what happens when your lead reporter on a story is a specialist in “human rights and travel” and not a science reporter. That being said, those incorrect talking points are being repeated all over social media.

Going back to the activists, they have been absolutely feasting on this spill. The line I saw on Twitter went something like: “Let’s see Kinder Morgan pass Trans Mountain now”. Let’s talk a moment about the ridiculous case being made by the pipeline opponents. One activist argued:

The Kinder Morgan pipeline follows the Fraser River through the valley and the Thompson River north of Kamloops,” explained Sven Biggs, a campaigner for Stand, based in Vancouver. “Most of its route runs right along rivers and those supply drinking water to a lot of the communities along the route.

This comes from Sven Biggs, a campaigner for Stand (formerly ForestEthics) based in Vancouver. Now I find his description telling since I wrote the same thing in a previous blog post. The difference is that I also considered the only alternative to pipelines: oil-by-rail. As I pointed out in my previous post, while the pipelines are typically separated from the river’s edges, the same cannot be said for the rail lines used by the oil-by-rail trains. As I wrote in my previous post the pipeline route runs far less of its length along river edges than the oil-by-rail route. Consider the pipeline route in the communities of the Lower Mainland. The current pipeline route pretty-much avoids the rivers and runs straight down the valley; the rail lines, meanwhile, run pretty-much right along the river for much of the length of the Valley.

Moreover, as I have pointed out previously, absent the Trans Mountain not only are we going to see more oil trains, the Americans are going to see a lot more oil trains and those trains run along the headwaters of the Kootenay and Columbia River. Heck the Columbia River had a near miss in June and according to Stand (formerly ForestEthics) 259,000 Northwest students live within an oil train blast zone. Oddly enough even after coming up with these terrifying numbers the same group is trying to block pipelines which will only increase the number of oil trains running through the Pacific Northwest and placing those children at further risk.

The cognitive dissonance of these people is simply stunning. They claim that they don’t want oil trains AND they don’t want pipelines AND they don’t want tankers? Now I ask the simple question: what will they accept? You see those are the only alternatives to get oil to the refineries and gasoline/diesel to the stations. These people have such a tenuous grip on modern reality that they imagine that stopping the movement of all fossil fuels will result in a Shangri-La. Well the truth is that stopping all fossil fuel shipments will result in a scene out of The Walking Dead. As a matter of interest, I conducted a thought experiment on what would happen if all fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow and the results are not pleasant. A summary is presented at the end of this blog post.

Going back to the point of this post, the Husky Oil spill represents pretty much a classic example of how not to handle an oil spill from a public perception perspective. If reports are correct the spill might have been caught hours earlier than it was. The information flow has been virtually non-existent allowing activists to dominate the news cycle with faulty information. The clean-up appears to be going well, with over half the crude recovered, but even then it is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money to restore the damage and even more to restore the damage to the industry’s reputation. Meanwhile activists are using the spill to convince the public that pipelines are not safe and in doing so are going to force more oil onto the rails where it will pose a much greater risk to human and ecological health. This spill represents the equivalent of two train cars worth of material. The Oregon derailment was 16 rail cars that came dangerously close to spilling in the Columbia River. It was only a matter of luck that we aren’t looking at pictures of dead salmon floating down the Columbia River at this very moment. The unit trains that move along our river-sides are made up of 70-120 oil cars.

The thing these activists don’t appear to understand (as exemplified by Stand’s ridiculous battles against pipelines and oil-by-rail) is that the option of not using fossil fuels is not on the table. As I have pointed out previously, replacing fossil fuels will take decades of herculean effort, in the meantime we will need fossil fuels. If those fossil fuels aren’t transported by pipeline they will go by rail. We all know which is the safer alternative.

A thought experiment on what would happen if all fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow.

In this thought experiment we will assume that a mystical power has arrived on Earth and using some unknown technology eliminated all fossil fuels from the planet. What would happen? Since I live in Langley, I’m going to consider this from a Lower Mainland perspective.

If you lived in the Lower Mainland, all transportation systems (except Skytrain and a few hundred electric vehicles) would immediately stop. Stores would cease to get new supplies as all supplies are transported from warehouses by truck. No new supplies could get to the warehouses as all the trains depend on diesel, transport planes on aviation fuel and container ships on bunker oil or diesel. Soon the folks in the urban areas would be fighting over the remaining scraps in the stores and once those supplies were gone there would be nothing to replace them.

Starvation would not be the biggest concern though as in area likes Vancouver, the potable water and electrical supplies are dependent on diesel for pumps and the electrical system is maintained by men and women with trucks. We in BC pride ourselves on getting most of our energy from non-fossil fuel sources but absent those pumps and those trucks within days (perhaps weeks if we didn’t have any storms) our electricity supply would be down as well. With no electricity and no diesel all the pumps would fail and Vancouverites would suddenly discover that living in a rain-forest means nothing if you don’t have access to stored water.

Within a couple weeks, the city-centers would look like a scene from The Walking Dead, with corpses everywhere as the weakest folks lost out in the battles for the gradually diminishing supplies of food and water. Absent the sanitary system, the remaining folk would be fighting dysentery as human waste polluted the limited freshwater aquifers. Anyone with the capacity to do so would be moving away from the city-centers as quickly as possible to forage as far as they could roam by foot and on the remaining bikes (the remaining electric vehicles having used their last charge after the electrical system failed).

In the Lower Mainland the city folk would be streaming out towards the Valley where they would discover that virtually everything edible (from plant to animal) had long since been eaten by the Valley folk. Within a few months over 90% of the population would have succumbed to the lack of clean water and food leaving a small minority fighting it out over the few remaining crops. Come winter, absent fossil fuels, the remaining few would go back to burning wood for heat and in doing so would add to the ecological devastation wrought by the first wave of city folk cleansing the ecosystem of everything edible. Certainly in parts of the developing world and in portions of the prairies, subsistence-level communities might remain intact but they would be re-building on a planet that had been systematically stripped of everything edible by the 7 billion souls who did their best to survive and in doing so wrought an ecological apocalypse.

In television shows like The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse addresses our population density before the millions of hungry humans have had a chance to devastate the planet. In a post-fossil fuel world, those 7 billion souls would be fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of food and whatever large or mid-sized animals left behind would take hundreds of years to regenerate their populations and the ecosystem that came back would look a lot different from the ecosystem that existed before humans. Climate Change may represent a real threat to humanity, but absent fossil fuels it is likely that 6 billion or more people would pass away in the first six months in this post–fossil fuel world.

Posted in Climate Change, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Trans Mountain Expansion Project Open House or Blair’s Adventure in Wonderland

As promised, I attended the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel Public Open House in Langley. I went in with an open mind and left the event feeling that I now know what it is like to be the ant at a Sunday picnic. After a good night’s sleep I realized that it could better be described as “Blair’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s book, I spent the afternoon in a world where established facts didn’t matter, where the NEB submission was used as a starting point for people’s imaginations and where post-normal science was the norm.

Let’s start with the setting. The room chosen was easily big enough for the 100-150 people who attended and the people who ran the event were very pleasant and welcoming. They were so welcoming that they allowed the folks from Pipe Up Network to set up a table with a full set of displays and two people staffing it, right inside the main entrance of the meeting room itself so everyone had to pass them to get in/out.

The crowd was made up of the demographics you would expect from an afternoon meeting on a work day (i.e. a lot of retirees, a lot of activists and very few people, like me, who took time off work to attend). As for the attendees, well they were pretty much unanimous in their opinions and were not very welcoming of anyone who might disagree. By my count there were about 33-34 presenters. Only one was definitively for the pipeline and he was a representative of an engineering firm doing work on the pipeline. He read a surprisingly informative presentation about the geotechnical work associated with the pipeline which was met with a steely silence from the crowd and then left at the first break. The remainder of the presenters were firmly in the “no” camp and repeatedly demanded shows of hands from the crowd in order to make their numbers clear (and possibly marginalize alternative views).

I got there early and was one of the first in the room. Since the speaker’s list was based on when you signed in that left me number four on the list of speakers. It was not an ideal position as I did not get the opportunity to hear many speakers before I spoke and therefore couldn’t adjust my points to reflect the biases in the room. The Chair indicated that there would be time at the end for follow-up comments but at the end of the day exhaustion had set in and no option for further comments was presented.

As expected my presentation had little effect on the folks in the room, but as I will explain later this doesn’t really surprise me anymore. I said what I wanted to say, but as presentations go it was not my best. As you can imagine, in that room my nerves got the better of me and during the only heckling of the day (surprise, surprise the only person heckled was the scientist) I froze up. It was in the section where I discuss energy alternatives and I eventually skipped that part (after what felt like an hour, but was probably no more than 20 seconds, of excruciating silence) when I recognized that my stutter wasn’t going to let me utter that combination of words. Upon completion of my remarks I was met with silence. Polite applause followed all but two of the presentations, you can guess which two.

As I noted, the only heckling during the afternoon involved a women and man who did not believe my, fully referenced, information about renewable energy and were not afraid to let me know it. At the end of my presentation the panel was polite but the crowd was a lot less so; in particular two people in the room stood out. There was a man with a beard who stared angrily at me and every time I looked in his direction. Eventually I just avoided looking in that direction. The second was a woman who, at the end of my presentation, gave me a look of such antipathy that you would have thought I had murdered her entire family in cold blood.

Throughout the day the general feeling I got was that these people were convinced in the rightness of their cause and had an absolute lack of acceptance for alternative views or for data that might contradict their preferred narrative. From the time I sat down after my talk to the end of the day the only strangers who spoke with me were the woman next to me who asked a polite question during the break and a gentleman seated directly behind me with whom I had a brief conversation. He was there with a hydro-geologist from a local university (who gave her presentation and left). He expressed doubts about something I said in my talk (about where BC gets its oil). It was clear from our discussion that he had no clue where the fuel in his gas tank actually comes from. As for the rest, I may as well have been a leper or a shunned member of an Amish community.

Besides the general lack of politeness in the group, what really struck me was how much the event represented an Alice in Wonderland-quality adventure in “post-normal science”. To explain, the concept of post-normal science was posited by a pair of philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz in their paper “Science for the Post-Normal Age”. The premise of their work is that in some fields science should be based on “assumptions of unpredictability, incomplete control and a plurality of legitimate perspectives” (i.e. on feelings and values in lieu of testable hypotheses and reproducible data). Funtowicz and Ravetz distinguished between scientists they call “reductionists” (traditional scientists who break problems into smaller pieces and try to address each piece) and those they call “humanists” (who see the big picture and don’t get bogged down with messy data). Funtowicz and Ravetz didn’t think of science as involving competing theories supported by data but rather as an interactive dialogue. Their adherents took their work one stage further and reached a point where they viewed reproducible data as suspect and viewed science through a prism where values trump data. This “democratization of science” placed less value on information developed through observations and experiments and more on what people felt in their hearts to be correct. It thus represents a sort of Through the Looking-Glass vibe where you should ignore what your lying eyes are telling you and trust your gut and most importantly your heart.

Most of the presenters talked of their deep and abiding love of nature (fisheries etc…) and then went on to talk about the evils of American-owned corporations, how Kinder Morgan was not a good corporate actor and that any economic activity that generated a profit was suspect. This was not a Conservative crowd. One particularly entertaining gent (probably 16-18 years old) talked about how he came from a background of wealth but that wealth was not a good thing and we don’t need to build things and should live with less. I love how the rich guy is always the one demanding that I should live with less.

Most of the “research” presented was from “Googling” a topic or from some “incredible documentary”. There was no thought that a deeper understanding could be achieved through a deeper, more time-consuming, investigation; by actually reading the NEB submission; or that an “expert” might have a bit more information than they could obtain through a couple hours of self-directed internet research. I can’t even count how many times I wanted to tell people that the information they were providing was simply wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were some strong presenters in particular Kim Richter, a Langley Township Councillor who spoke as a private individual, who made excellent points about risks to our community’s groundwater. Another standout was former Langley School Trustee Cecelia Reekie who spoke powerful words about the need for reconciliation with our indigenous cousins. A couple of the representatives from Pipe Up presented good information although Rex Eaton might wish to look at the routing of oil-by-rail trains before he talks about his fears that the pipeline approaches the edge of the Fraser River in Surrey.

As for the rest, it was clear that few had read the NEB submissions since none appeared to recognize that there would be two lines and that the lines would predominantly carry different products. To the best of my knowledge, none recognized the existence of the Sumas pipeline to the Puget Sound. They clearly all imagine that fossil fuels currently are delivered to BC via unicorn as most insisted that tankers in the Salish Sea would be a disaster while ignoring the 50 year history of tankers in the Salish Sea and the massive refining presence in the Puget Sound. Several repeated the credo that renewable energy could be implemented almost immediately with enough will, ignoring what every expert will tell them that it will take decades of herculean effort and buckets of cash. The consensus in the room was that a single massive pipeline was going ship bitumen and only bitumen and that virtually all of that bitumen was going to be shipped to China where most of it would be processed in Chinese refineries and then sold back to us as gasoline and diesel even though the NEB documents make it clear that this is not correct.

I didn’t try to keep count but if I hear the line “every pipeline leaks” one more time it will be one too many. I won’t go into comments about the difference between an “unintended discharge” and a “spill” but the whole idea of an unintended discharge amused the crowd to no end. To clarify, a “spill” has a very specific technical/regulatory meaning in pipelines so the companies use the terms “discharge” and “release” to distinguish between a “reportable spill” and a release of material at volumes below those that are reportable as “spills”.

Ultimately what I take from this meeting is a realization that there exists a core group of activists whose minds are made up and who are uninterested in facts. They were there to declare “their truth” to the panel and did not care about the actual truth. As a scientist I have always found that expression troubling. I live in a world where there is truth, there is fiction and then there are measures of uncertainty. When we are uncertain about a course of action we attempt to balance risks (admitting that everyone’s risk tolerances vary) and come up with an optimal solution. Not all will agree on the solution but the process is open and we are accountable for it. As such, I do not believe that individuals can have their own unique truths. They can have opinions, backed by varying levels of certainty, but not “truths”.

The problem with this crowd is that it was full of people with their own truths and those truths were based on foundations of sand. Most problematically many of the presenters assured the Panel that if cabinet approved the pipeline that they were going to physically block the pipeline. These people are never going to accept any project ever no matter how many others agree with the project. They want to live in a modern society but will fight any effort to pay for that society or provide it with the raw materials necessary to keep it functioning. Not only do they “have their own truths”, they have no respect for the idea that our society is built on a foundation of compromise and if one small group decides not to abide by our social contract then the entire edifice stands a risk of collapse. These people represent the self-certainty of the uninformed, they wander around in a Dunning-Kruger haze and want us to acknowledge their “truths” while never bothering to put in the intellectual effort to find out what is really true. They represent the worst of the progressive movement: left-wing ideologues and demagogues who seek  not to have a rational discussion, but simply to state their demands and insist that we accept those demands immediately and without complaint.

Posted in Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

On pipelines, oil-by-rail, and the relative risk of catastrophic spills in the aquatic environment

As my regular readers know besides this blog I also write a blog at the Huffington Post. It typically consists of shorter versions on my pieces here. Well my most recent post on the Trans-Mountain Expansion project has received a lot of feedback, particularly since the post went online shortly before the Husky Oil Spill. As such, I wanted to take a few moments to address some points that I have made repeatedly in the comments at the other blog but have not had the space to flesh out properly there. Specifically, I do not want to talk about the relative absolute risk of pipeline spills but rather the relative human and ecological risk of spills from pipelines versus oil-by-rail. To explain my intention, I am going to use the tools of risk assessment to help you understand why I feel strongly about getting oil off the rails and into pipelines.

As I noted above, the Husky Oil Spill is headlining the news. As reported, the spill occurred proximate to the North Saskatchewan River with about 200,000 L – 250,000 L of heavy oil being released. While this seems like a large volume remember that we are talking in relative terms here. A unit train for transportation of oil-by-rail consists typically of between 70-120 rail cars with each rail car carrying approximately 600 barrels of crude oil (approximately 95,000 L). So the Husky spill consisted of a little over two rail cars worth of product. The North Saskatchewan River has an average flow of about 238,000 L/second so the entire spill consisted of about a second’s worth of flow on the River. Had the material spilled been diesel or gasoline, the resultant spill would have dissipated to non-detectable concentrations downstream; but this was not a gasoline/diesel spill. Instead it sounds like the spill was heavy oil (possibly dilbit) and diluents (likely condensate). As I have written previously, the resultant volume would have an initial density around 0.92 – 0.94 mg/L but as the lighter materials separated out the heavier oil would eventually reach a density approaching 1 (the specific gravity of pure fresh water) and would have the potential to sink. I go into a lot more detail about what happens next at my earlier post. On a positive front, since the material is heavy hydrocarbons the material is very hydrophobic and not very soluble so much of the material should be recoverable using the right technologies. Suffice it to say this is a bad spill and will take a reasonable amount of work, time and money to clean. In the process some valuable habitat will be damaged and a lot of downstream communities will have some serious worries possibly for some time to come.

 The thing that is unusual about this pipeline spill was its proximity to water. You see that is one of the big benefits to pipelines: their routing. As every person who went through the Canadian school system can tell you, the construction of the CN and CP rail lines represented marvels of their era. These two railways cross some of the most challenging terrain in North America. To do so in that era, these rail lines took advantage of natural terrain features which when going through mountains means rivers. Just take a look at the CN rail map (caution large file) or the CP rail map. Both run the majority of their length immediately adjacent to rivers. The Trans Mountain pipeline, however, was built over a century later and was built after the Trans-Canada Highway and many of the rural highways had already been constructed. As a consequence, it runs far less of its length along river edges. Consider the pipeline in communities like the lower mainland. The current pipeline route pretty-much avoids the rivers and runs straight down the valley; the rail lines, meanwhile, run pretty-much right along the river for much of the length of the Valley. So what does this means for safety? Well this is where I bring in my background in risk assessment into play.

As I have written previously, in a risk assessment for there to be an unacceptable risk to human or ecological health the following conditions need to exist:

  • chemical or compounds must be present at hazardous concentrations;
  • human or ecological receptors must exist; and
  • an exposure pathways must exist that allows the chemical compound of interest to interact with the receptor resulting in a dose that poses an unacceptable risk.

Now for a relative risk assessment between oil-by-rail and pipelines we can all agree that for both modes of transport the compounds are present at hazardous concentrations and human and ecological receptors exist. The critical difference between the two is the “exposure assessment”. In this case we ask the question: how much of the route poses a direct risk to rivers and aquatic ecosystems? For the pipeline we would need to consider  every instance where the pipeline crosses next to, or under, a river or a stream. For rail, which runs along the side of the river, we have a pretty much consistent risk of 1 (i.e. if the train has an accident along a riverbank the chance of it affecting the river in some way is 1). In a risk assessment we then use this information to calculate a relative risk.

Now we already know that oil-by-rail has a 4.5 times greater risk of incident so let’s now do a back-of-the envelope calculation of the increased risk to aquatic ecosystems associated with oil-by-rail versus pipelines. Let’s take a wild guess that the pipeline in the Fraser Valley has 5% of its length crossing under or adjacent to a river/stream (that number an educated guess and may be easily off by an order of magnitude). Then the increased relative risk for the oil-by rail to aquatic ecosystems would by 4.5 x divided by the difference in exposure (here it would be 0.05/1). The resultant relative risk would be a factor of 90 times. So from a relative risk perspective the oil-by-rail is not 4.5 times greater of an incident affecting aquatic ecosystems but rather 90 times greater. Once again I am using estimates to help you understand where I am coming from. What this simple example shows is that from an aquatic perspective the risk of serious impacts by rail is not simply 4.5 times higher but could be in the range of 90 times higher. I’m sure someone more familiar with the routing can provide better numbers but I think you can see that by using the tools of risk assessment we can get a better understanding of the relative risk of these two modes of transportation.

Another consideration not included in the risk calculus involves the storage facilities en route. As I pointed out in a previous post, the various pump facilities and storage yards along the Trans Mountain route are dedicated facilities, each of which includes dedicated spill containment facilities. These facilities are typically bermed and lined with materials that will not allow spilled oil to escape. As discussed 69.5% of the “spills” during the operation of the pipeline have been in facilities with spill containment and thus did not pose a serious risk of escapement. The rail system doesn’t use similar containment facilities along their rail lines. When an oil train is pulled up along a siding or in a storage yard they can’t install a bermed facility with liners to catch spills. Rather the trains can  sit unattended or only attended simply by railway staff who have other responsibilities as well. That is what happened at Lac Megantic.

I want to keep this post relatively short so will stop here. To conclude I want to reiterate a few things. First, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to play down the Husky Oil Spill. I don’t know enough about the current situation of that spill to give a reliable estimation, but I can assure you that the clean-up will not be over next week and if a lot of the material has become affixed to river sediments and sunk to the bottom, then the clean-up is going to take time and be expensive. That being said, this spill represents the equivalent of two tanker cars worth of material. Imagine if it had been a unit train that had left the tracks adjacent to the river? The volumes would have been 50 times greater. Moreover, as I point out for the province of BC, while the risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline; the relative risk is even higher for rail, because the rail system is not dedicated solely to the transportation of fuels and because the rail lines are situated far closer, for a longer proportion of their length, to the more fragile aquatic habitat. If you are a community that depends on the health of our rivers, you will want to get as much of that oil off the rails and into pipelines as soon as possible. The numbers make that clear.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Energy East, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Risk, Risk Assessment Methodologies, Risk Communication, Trans Mountain | 3 Comments

My proposed presentation to the Trans Mountain Expansion Ministerial Panel

As I wrote in my previous post, on July 27th I will be attending the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel Public Open House in Langley. If I get a chance this is what I intend to say.

My name is Blair King. I have a Ph.D in Chemistry and Environmental Studies, am a Professional Chemist, a Professional Biologist, a Contaminated Sites Approved Professional and have spent the last 16 years remediating industrial and commercial properties contaminated by our modern society. The majority of my work involves cleaning up spilled hydrocarbons. I am a family man but in my spare time I write a blog about evidence-based environmental decision-making called “A Chemist in Langley“. For those interested everything I say today is fully referenced at my blog https://achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/ .

First I have a quick conflict-of-interest disclosure. While I clean up contaminated sites for a living, I have no financial interest in the TMX nor, to the best of my knowledge, does my employer. I am not being paid to be here and have never received a cent from any of my blogging. My strong personal interest in the TMX project comes both as someone deeply interested in making sure we keep our province prosperous and clean and also as a neighbour to the pipeline. You see I live less than 50 m from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and cross the pipeline daily on my walk to work. Unlike most of my neighbours, I bought my house fully aware of the existence and location of the Trans Mountain pipeline. I knew it was there and still felt safe raising my young family immediately nearby.

I am here today not to speak directly in support of the TMX project but rather to clear up a lot of misconceptions and talking points you have heard, and will hear, at this open house.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Climate Change. Let’s be frank, climate change is real, it is dangerous and we, as a country, have to do more to fight climate change. That being said climate change is a red herring in this discussion. Why? Because up to 80% of the emissions associated with fossil fuels are generated in their combustion. Pipelines represent a negligible part of that equation and the upstream numbers for Canadian producers are entirely comparable to our American counterparts.

So why is climate change a red herring? Because climate change is a result of the demand side of the ledger, the burning of fossil fuels, not their generation. As we know, the world is awash in oil, if it is not supplied from Alberta, it will be supplied by Algeria or Nigeria. If you really want to fight climate change don’t fight pipelines, fight for market-based mechanisms like carbon pricing. History has shown the only way to reduce fossil fuel use (and resultant carbon emissions) is to address the demand side of the ledger.

So where is the demand coming from? Well almost all (95%) of the world’s transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel. Transportation use represents about 33% of all the energy used in British Columbia. The technology does not exist to get our planes, trains, ferries and transport trucks off fossil fuels and electrical vehicles for personal transportation are still in their infancy. Even with a herculean effort we are not going fossil fuel-free in our transportation system for decades to come. The technology has not even been invented that would allow us to do so. Only by making fossil fuels more expensive (through market-based mechanisms) will the world have the incentive to develop the technologies necessary to get our transportation system off fossil fuels.

Moreover, even if we were to somehow magically convert our transportation system to electric power, we would not come close to having the electrical generating capacity needed to meet the demand. In British Columbia transportation uses the equivalent of 9 to 15 Site C Dams worth of energy per year and we do not have that kind of electricity oversupply just lying around.

Renewables will certainly help but ramping up our renewable energy capacity represents another multi-decade long struggle and our existing electrical grid is not compatible with large-scale renewable energy. Going to renewable will mean completely re-designing our electrical grid which also will take time and money.

What this means is that we are going to have a demand for fossil fuels for at least three and likely five to seven decades into our future. So the question we have to ask ourselves is how are we going to get access to that fuel?

In most of BC our liquid fuel is supplied by imports. We get it from Alberta (by truck, rail and pipeline) and from the Puget Sound (by barge and tanker). Our supply network is stretched extremely thin and as the folks in the interior know, a short shut-down in Edmonton can mean empty gas stations in Kamloops and Kelowna.

Now the Puget Sound has historically received the vast majority of its crude oil from Alaska via tanker. You know that West Coast Tanker ban? Well Americans have been shipping up to 600,000 barrel/day of crude from Alaska to the Puget Sound via the Salish Sea for the last 20 years. That Alaskan oil is drying up and besides Canadian oil (via the existing Trans Mountain) the Puget Sound is going to be getting its future oil by rail.

How will they do that? Well the infrastructure is almost in place to supply up to 725,000 barrels/day to the US West Coast by rail. Much of that oil will travel along the headwaters of the Kootenay River and alongside the Columbia River to the Puget Sound.

So today’s discussion is not about climate change nor is it about renewable energy, it is about how, for the next 40 to 50 years, we are going to get liquid hydrocarbons to market while we work to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Because the truth is that it is going to take us 40 to 50 years and in that time we will continue to need liquid fuels. So the only debate, today, is how do we transport that oil as safely as possible?

Well the answer to that question is definitive: pipelines have 4.5 times fewer accidents/spills than oil-by-rail and while every oil spills represents a catastrophe, spills from pipelines do not hold a candle to the apocalyptic aftermath of rail accidents. People like me can clean up the Kalamazoo River, but we can’t do anything to restore all those lives lost in Lac Megantic.

I will close with this: I am a pragmatic environmentalist. I want to leave my kids a world where fossil fuels are not used for transportation or energy, but we are not there yet. Until we reach that point we will need to move fossil fuels and the safest and most environmentally sensitive way to move those fuels over land is via pipeline and not oil-by-rail. Because let’s be honest here, the alternative to TMX is not some fossil fuel-free Shangri-La, it is oil-by-rail.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 12 Comments