Kinder Morgan oil sands pipeline expansion plan said to pose risks beyond leaks and spills
Starting in September 2012, Texas-based pipeline giant Kinder Morgan will begin public consultations for an estimated $4 billion expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands in Edmonton to through Metro Vancouver. Their plan is to more than double the capacity of the pipeline by 2017. The project rivals Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which aims to export crude oil from Alberta tar sands through the Great Bear Rainforest. With the benefit of an existing right-of-way, could Kinder Morgan succeed in making Vancouver the first major artery of oil sands expansion on the West Coast? Or will their record of oil spills tar up their plans?
This is the third of a five part series, Southern Gateway: An American pipeline giant's plans for Vancouver.
With the BC government's release of a report on heavy oil pipelines on Monday, oil spills and pipeline leaks are coming under increasing public and government scrutiny. For some, the bigger concern is what happens when heavy oil leaks into the air.
This is one of the reasons Wilderness Committee campaigner Ben West is alarmed about Kinder Morgan’s proposal to “twin” the Trans Mountain pipeline -- the only up-and-running pipeline connecting Alberta’s oil sands to the West Coast.
“It’s not as if all these oil tankers don’t spill then everything’s still hunky dory,” said West.
In his opinion, a piece from the satirical Onion News Network put it best when it stated that there had been a horrible disaster because an oil tanker had actually successfully made its way to its destination and was now burning the oil and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
“That to me was beautiful poetry,” West said.
Massive record-breaking flooding submerged the Canadian prairies throughout the summer of 2011. The year before, a giant iceberg four times the size of Manhattan floated towards Nova Scotia. Up north, buildings sink and roads buckle as the permafrost melts. It’s unprecedented events like these that make West feels the risks of more oil flowing through Vancouver include consequences for the whole world.
An iceberg four times the size of Manhattan that broke away from Petermann Glacier in the summer of 2010 is the largest known ice calving in Greenland's history. Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory, 16 August 2010.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan plans to more than double the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby and onto Bellingham, Washington. If successful, the expansion would increase capacity to 750,000 barrels of oil per day and result in up to 300 tankers visiting the Burrard Inlet each year to pick up oil sands crude for export. The jump in tankers would equal a thirteen-fold increase since the company purchased the pipeline and its Burnaby Westridge terminal in 2005.
The company states that it will begin public consultations on their expansion plans in September and will apply to the National Energy Board in 2013.
West, 34, is working with veteran Greenpeace activist Rex Weyler to fight the transformation of Vancouver into a major artery of oil sands expansion.
A recent report by the International Energy Agency stated that the world has until 2017 to make a switch to low-carbon infrastructure. What we build today has a rippling effect into the future as each new piece of infrastructure has a decades-long lifespan and essentially locks us into a certain path.
While the authors of the report state that they are increasingly pessimistic, West maintains a hopeful disposition seeing it as useful to connect a daunting challenge like climate change with something tangible and concrete, like infrastructure.
“It’s something you can put your hands on, and there are real options,” West said. “We need to be thinking about what we want the world to look like ten or twenty years from now, not just tomorrow.”
To stay beneath two degrees Celsius of global warming, an internationally recognised goal, it matters more than ever what we build today, not forty years from now, West said.
Bitumen's dependence on natural gas
Canada is only responsible for two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions due to its low population, according to Matthew Bramley, director of research at the Pembina Institute. Canada has, however, one of the highest levels of emissions per person in the world and Alberta’s oil sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Bitumen is the technical term for the substance being mined in the Alberta oil sands. A thick sticky unconventional fossil fuel, large amounts of fresh water and heat are needed to melt and separate it from surrounding clay, sand, sulphur and heavy metals.
Video by Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé. Illustrations by James Braithwaite. For the documentary H2oil. Taken from Youtube.
As remnants of conventional oil that seeped towards the surface and were degraded by bacteria, bitumen deposits are so deprived of hydrogen (the molecule that allows fuels to burn) that natural gas, increasingly from northeastern BC, needs to be blended into it before it’s a viable fuel. According to a report by The Pembina Institute, 60 per cent of natural gas consumed in Canada and the U.S. goes towards the oil and gas industry.
The high amounts of natural gas needed to refine and extract the bitumen means a barrel of oil sands crude is two to three times more carbon intensive than a barrel of conventional oil, according to a report by the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada.
But fully understanding the climate footprint of the oil sands is an ongoing battle in the popular press, among activists and among scholars.
Oil sands' carbon footprint
Research by Suzanne Bayley and David Schindler, scientists from the University of Alberta, reveal that the climate change impacts of the oil sands have been underestimated as assessments have left out the amount of carbon that would be released from destruction of the region’s peatlands, a key carbon sink.
The study comes on the heels of another one that caused quite a media stir when released by climate scientist Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria and his doctoral student Neil Swart. Their study claimed that the carbon footprint of the oil sands is actually quite miniscule and that the real concern with expanding the oil sands was not so much their direct impact on the climate but the way that they encourage a dependence on fossil fuels.
Weaver and Swart’s study concluded that even the exploitation of every last bit of bitumen in the oil sands would only raise global temperatures by 0.36 degrees Celsius. They note, however, that their analysis did not include the carbon released from deforestation. Nor did they include the amount of natural gas needed for extracting the oil sands, which would raise their climate impact estimates by 17 per cent.
Climate activists (such as Weyler), climate scientists, (such as NASA climate scientist James Hansen), and environmental groups (such as Greenpeace) refer to the oil sands as the world’s biggest “climate bomb.”
Meanwhile, David Keith, Canadian Research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary, is quoted in a Green Party endorsed report by an independent researcher as stating that Canada’s oil sands contain an estimated 200 gigatons of carbon.
That equates, he wrote, to two thirds of what humanity has already emitted from fossil fuel combustion in all of human history, and a third of what leading climate scientists say the global community can emit before reaching a dangerous threshold of climate change.
All this makes the oil sands an especially sharp target for climate activists and concerned citizens.
“We’re exporting climate change”
So far, heavy lobbying on the part of the Canadian government has stalled a European process that would essentially ban the EU from importing Alberta oil sands for its high carbon footprint. But all the government’s diplomatic muscle could not sway American protesters opposed to the climate implications of importing oil sands crude.
Thousands of people protesting the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline, that would have taken 830,000 barrels oil sands crude through Nebraska, Texas and onto the Gulf Coast, were arrested in the United States during the summer of 2011.
Writer and activist Bill McKibben was one of thousands arrested at the Keystone XL pipeline protests in Washington, DC in the summer of 2011. This photo was taken at another rally outside the State Department on October 7th, 2011. Photo credit: Bill McKibben, Creative Commons.
With Keystone delayed and a cold reception from Europe, the Canadian government sees exports to Asia through BC as inexorable.
In British Columbia, over 4,500 residents are speaking out against Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipelines during an environmental assessment process that began in early 2012.
Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines would carry 525,000 barrels of oil sands crude and 193,000 barrels of condensate per day to Kitimat, BC.
In contrast, Kinder Morgan’s wants to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline in order for it to carry 750,000 barrels of crude oil per day, mostly to tankers in Vancouver and also to refineries in Bellingham, Washington.
Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor from the University of British Columbia, wrote an opinion piece in March for the Vancouver Sun stating that if the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline proposals are approved, British Columbia will be “exporting climate change.”
From Enbridge’s proposed pipelines alone, 82.5 million tonnes of CO2 would be released per year, she wrote. That number, which does not include emissions from extraction and refining the bitumen, is higher than the 67 million tonnes of greenhouse gases B.C. emitted from all sources in 2009. She wrote,
“Our province has shown leadership in setting an ambitious target to reduce our emissions by one third, or 22 million tonnes, by 2020. It is at best foolish, and at worst hypocritical, to simultaneously pursue resource developments that will yield global emissions increases that undo those gains ten times over.”
There’s politics and then there’s science
In 2010, the oil sands made up about two per cent of Canada’s national GDP, according to a report done for Natural Resources Canada, and they are projected to grow to account for three per cent by 2020, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.
The Canadian Energy Research Institute, a research agency comprised of experts from industry, academia, and government, project that jobs associated with the oil sands will increase from 75,000 to 905,000 by 2035.
A collage of images of the development of the Alberta oil sands. Photo credit: Jungbim, Creative Commons.
West, a former political science major, said he understands the practical challenges of shutting down the oil sands in light of the current state of the economy. It just would not be politically feasible.
“But there’s politics and then there’s science,” West said, “And they’re totally different things.”
He adds that is it is disingenuous to talk about it as all or nothing since no one could shut down the oil sands tomorrow even if they wanted to.
But what we can do, he said, is decide on the degree of expansion and whether or not we want to build new pipelines and increase our dependence on fossil fuels or focus on building infrastructure that can take us in a different direction.
“That’s really the nature of the conversation,” West said.
But with foreign investment in the oil sands reaching roughly $200 billion, that conversation is largely being subsumed by the world’s growing demand for a dwindling supply of oil, which makes the economic pressures for expansion great.