National Column: Refine bitumen in Alberta, B.C.

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by Thomas Walkom

The Trans Mountain pipeline is going nowhere. Ottawa agreed this week to a Federal Court of Appeal requirement that it once again consult 117 Indigenous First Nations along the proposed route.

That process could – and probably will – take forever.

Ottawa has also agreed to have the National Energy Board examine whether the proposed pipeline expansion from Alberta to British Columbia’s Pacific Coast would threaten marine species such as whales.

If the NEB conducts that investigation thoroughly, it can come to only one conclusion: the expanded tanker traffic required to ship Alberta heavy oil from the Vancouver area to markets in Asia would pose such a threat.

On the face of it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trapped. He has promised that the pipeline will go ahead. But he has also promised that it will do so in a way that respects both the environment and Indigenous rights – which in its current form it cannot.

There is, however, a potential way out: if Alberta refined its heavy oil at home and sent a lighter form of petroleum through the proposed pipeline, much of the opposition to Trans Mountain would evaporate.

There are two key objections to the Trans Mountain expansion. The first is that it will encourage even more climate-altering exploitation of the carbon-rich Alberta oilsands. That objection can be met only if the pipeline project is abandoned completely.

But the second objection is more widespread and thus politically more important. It is an objection to the kind of oil that the expanded pipeline would carry.

Oilsands bitumen is a tarlike substance that, even when diluted, is impossibly gooey. Many First Nations along the Trans Mountain route are willing to live with the current pipeline, which transports both refined products and normal crude oil. But they justly fear that an expanded pipeline filled with bitumen would, if ruptured, cause significant environmental damage.

Similarly, most of the pipeline opposition in B.C.’s heavily populated lower mainland focuses mainly on the kind of oil that would be transported.

Fewer British Columbians find fault with tankers that carry normal crude oil. Fewer still object to the idea of tankers filled with liquefied natural gas. Natural gas evaporates. But the spectre of a bitumen spill fouling the ocean floor raises real fears.

Why not, then, finesse the problem by refining the bitumen – either in Alberta before it enters the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline or in B.C. before it is loaded into tankers?

Many have asked this question. The Boilermakers Union, which would get jobs for its members from any expansion of refining capacity, likes the idea. So does Victoria media mogul David Black, who heads up a company that wants to build such a refinery.

The difficulty is money. Refineries are expensive. The major oil companies find it cheaper to ship crude oil to a few big refineries in the U.S. rather than build any in this country.

Canada boasted 40 refineries in the 1970s. It has only 15 now, including one started up last year in Alberta with provincial government assistance.

A refinery devoted to bitumen would probably have to be either government-owne or government subsidized.

But both are commonplace in Canada. The federal government already owns Trans Mountain. The Alberta oilsands were developed in part with federal and provincial government money.

A new $40-billion liquefied natural gas project just announced for Kitimat, B.C., will receive hefty provincial government tax breaks, says New Democratic Party Premier John Horgan.

Subsidizing big business is the Canadian way.

Trudeau has staked his political reputation on getting Trans Mountain built. I don’t happen to think this was a wise decision. The pipeline will make it more difficult for Canada to reach even the limited carbon-reduction targets it has agreed to as part of the international fight against climate change.

But if the prime minister insists, and if he wants to avoid getting bogged down in interminable talks with pipeline opponents, he does have a way out.

He can support measures to refine Alberta’s oil into something less dangerous to transport.

Twitter: @tomwalkom

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