Andrew Weaver: British Columbia and the Alberta tar sands
Anyone in the media business knows that a headline writer’s goal is to attract a potential reader to an article. So when a provocative headline says something like " Green Party MLA supports refinery", you can bet that heads will turn. In this age of sound bites and 140 character tweets, too often the subtleties explored within the full article are overlooked. And that is precisely what is wrong with much of our political discourse in British Columbia. Issues are not black and white; they are nuanced shades of grey.
In what follows, I provide an analysis of the issues surrounding the expansion of tar sands and proposed pipeline projects in North America. I am hoping this piece will provide a catalyst for further discussion.
1. Bitumen by rail
In British Columbia, bitumen is currently being brought by rail to Vancouver. In fact, bitumen by rail is on the rise and, frankly, there is little we can do about that.
Under the Canada Transportation Act there are a number of obligations that rail companies must comply with. If they do not comply with these obligations they can be taken to court. Here are three examples:
- Section 113 – “a railway company must provide, according to its powers, adequate and suitable accommodation for the receiving, loading, carrying, unloading and delivering of all traffic offered for carriage on its railway”.
- Section 125 – “No railway company shall, by any combination, contract or agreement, express or implied, or by any other means, prevent traffic from being moved on a continuous route from the point of origin to the point of destination.”
- Section 137 – “A railway company shall not limit or restrict its liability to a shipper for the movement of traffic except by means of a written agreement signed by the shipper or by an association or other body representing shippers.”
So what does this all mean? If a company based in Alberta wishes to ship heavy crude to Prince Rupert or Kitimat they can choose to ship it through a railway corporation. Legally CNI or CP would be obligated to accept such a cargo, as long as it met the current regulations (e.g. type of tanker car, adequate loading and unloading facilities, proper labeling and quantities). They could negotiate on liability concerns but must sign an agreement dividing the proportion of liability if an accident was to occur. But in other words, the rail company cannot say ‘no’.
Numerous derailments have been in the news of late. I am reasonably confident that I am not alone in British Columbia in wanting to slow down the flow of bitumen by rail though Vancouver and numerous communities in the B.C. interior.
2. The Kinder Morgan pipeline
In British Columbia, diluted bitumen (dilbit) is also being piped through the Kinder Morgan line to Burnaby where it is loaded onto tankers. About one tanker a week laden with dilbit is passing along the coast of the Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding on its way to refineries in Asia or California. In the fall of 2013, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Natural Resources Canada, published a report entitled "Properties, Composition and Marine Spill Behaviour, Fate and Transport of Two Diluted Bitumen Produc ts form the Canadian Oil Sands". Its findings were clear. These include:
- When fine sediments were suspended in the saltwater, high-energy wave action mixed the sediments with the diluted bitumen, causing the mixture to sink or be dispersed as floating tarballs
- Under conditions simulating breaking waves, where chemical dispersants have proven effective with conventional crude oils, a commercial chemical dispersant (Corexit 9500) had quite limited effectiveness in dispersing dilbit;
- Application of fine sediments to floating diluted bitumen was not effective in helping to disperse the products;
Now one thing is certain: with the Fraser River outflow, we have no shortage of sediments suspended in the waters of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait. Can you imagine the economic and environmental costs of a dilbit spill in Vancouver Harbour or the coastal waters along Vancouver Islands? This is why I called for a moratorium on dilbit tanker traffic from the Burnaby port on September 19, 2013.
In fact, a recently released government-commissioned risk analysis has identified the southern tip of Vancouver Island (which includes my riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head) as one of the most probable areas for a major heavy oil spill. The report notes that both the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan proposals would lead to “very high” risk of a major oil spill. That’s frankly unacceptable.
3. The Alberta tar sands and climate change
I’ve worked as a climate scientist for more than 20 years and served as a lead author on the second, third, fourth and fifth United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I acted as the chief editor of the Journal of Climate published by the American Meteorological Society for five years, and I’ve published numerous papers on the topic. Rest assured, I understand the profound consequences that global warming has and will have on our natural environment. Frankly, witnessing British Columbia drift away from its position of leadership on this file is one of the main reasons I decided to run for office.
In 2012, Neil Swart, a PhD student working in my lab, and I published a paper examining the global warming potential of a variety of resources. I further expanded upon this in a piece I wrote in the Huffington Post. We asked the specific question as to how much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuel resources. Here is what we calculated for the following resources:
- tar sands under active development: would add 0.01°C to world temperatures.
- economically viable tar sands reserve: would add 0.03°C to world temperatures.
- entire tar sands oil in place which includes the uneconomical and the economical resource: would add 0.36°C to world temperatures
- total unconventional natural gas resource base: would add 2.86°C to world temperatures
- total coal resource base: would add 14.8°C to world temperatures
In other words, the global warming potential of the Alberta tar sands, and in fact all global conventional and unconventional oil reserves, pale in comparison with the potential from coal and unconventional natural gas. This does not mean the tar sands get a “get out of jail free” card. They represent the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet it’s international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.
There are many problems with the rate at which tar sand development is expanding as I note in this Youtube video. This is why I joined Chief Allan Adam of the Chipewyan Nation and Neil Young in a press conference on January 12 to launch the Honour the Treaties tour. I support Chief Adam in their Draw a Line in the Sand campaign. To quote Chief Adam from the press conference: “We don’t want to shut down the tar sands, we want to slow down the tar sands”. The Chipewyan First Nation is asking that their Treaty No. 8 rights be respected. They want promises of reclamation to keep pace with expansion; and they want assurances that they will have access to clean water.
What does slow down mean to me? It means fulfilling promises to reclaim the land that has been disturbed by existing tar sands exploration. It means ensuring that production doesn’t exceed the present rate of around two million barrels per day. It means reclamation must be ramped up because expansion of the tar sands to date has vastly exceeded reclamation. And it means the implementation of a national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels using the wealth of today to position ourselves for the economy of tomorrow, much as Norway has done in Europe.
4. The Keystone XL pipeline
The discovery of enormous reserves of shale oil in the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations in the United States means that for the first time since 1973 (when a ban on crude oil exports was introduced), the US is considering exporting crude oil abroad. At the same time, President Barack Obama is mulling over a long awaited decision concerning the Keystone pipeline approval. The U.S. State Department recently released their Final Environmental Impact Statement providing the necessary background information to inform President Obama’s decision.
I believe that President Obama will reject the Keystone pipeline application. While I expect his rationale will be cloaked in environmental concerns, I suspect that central to his decision will be a desire to ensure a domestic market for Bakken and Eagle Ford formation shale oil. That is, the construction of the Keystone pipeline will mean a commitment to dependence on dilbit from the tar sands and further pressure to export U.S. produced shale oil. By rejecting the Keystone pipeline application, there will be a U.S. market for U.S. shale oil, thereby keeping in place the 1973 ban on exports.
So where does the drying up of the U.S. market leave Canadian tar sand production? There will be enormous pressure from an industry that has invested billions and a federal government that has gone all-in on tar sands bitumen extraction as a catalyst for the Canadian economy to push this land-locked product to foreign markets. I, like many of you, did not vote for this government. And I, like many of you, believe that Mr. Harper has done enormous damage to our country’s identity and international reputation. But does this mean I am trying to shut down Canada’s oil and gas industry? Of course not.
5. The Northern Gateway pipeline
The proposed Northern Gateway project would see 525,000 barrels of the heavy oil diluted bitumen (dilbit) transported across British Columbia each day and loaded onto super tankers for shipment to international refineries. I’ve been opposed to the Northern Gateway project for quite some time for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Northern Gateway does not have a social license to proceed. Virtually every First Nation is opposed to the project and the Northern Gateway pipeline would go through their traditional territories so their wishes must be respected. The overwhelming majority of British Columbians are also against this project. As far as I am concerned, Northern Gateway has burned too many bridges, alienated too many First Nations and lost the trust of the people of B.C. It’s time for the Northern Gateway proponents to move on.
Second, tanker traffic along the B.C. coast is an accident waiting to happen as the waters are hazardous to navigate. Were a dilbit spill to occur, the environmental destruction would be profound. To date, no oil spill response study has been able to account for dilbit; studies have only analyzed what would happen in the case of a spill from more commonly shipped crude oil. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ own recent submission to Treasury Board: “Behaviour models specific to dilbit spills do not exist, and existing commercial models for conventional oil do not allow parameter specific modifications.” But dilbit is unlike other crude oils in that whereas most oils will float on the surface, dilbit can sink. Once that happens, we don’t know where it will go, how it will interact with currents and tides or how we could reasonably clean it up. In some areas it is projected that only three percent of floating crude oil could be cleaned up in the event of a spill. That number is already dismally low. With dilbit it would be even lower. We need to keep dilbit out of our coastal waters.
Third, I am troubled by the potential for lasting environmental degradation should a dilbit leak occur in the pristine wilderness regions of Northern B.C. This is particularly concerning if such a leak occurred in the vicinity of a stream or river. We have to look no further than the July 2010 Kalamazoo River dilbit spill to see what the effects might be. Three and a half years later, they are still trying to clean up the remnants of the 3.3 million litre spill.
Fourth, shipping raw products abroad means shipping jobs abroad. Other nations need propane, jet fuel, diesel, lumber, and paper. They do not need dilbit and raw logs. We should be providing increased value here in Canada.
6. The BC Government’s five conditions.
The British Columbia government has outlined five conditions that must be met for their acceptance of heavy oil pipelines projects. These are
- Successful completion of the environmental review process. In the case of Enbridge, that would mean a recommendation by the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel that the project proceed;
- World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.’s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines and shipments;
- World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines;
- Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed, and First Nations are provided with the opportunities, information and resources necessary to participate in and benefit from a heavy-oil project; and
- British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.
I support these five conditions. But in addition and for the reasons outline above, the BC Green Party has added a sixth condition:
- A moratorium for dilbit transport along the British Columbia Coast.
On December 19, the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel recommended that the federal government approve the Northern Gateway project subject to 209 conditions that should be met. This decision partially meets the first condition above. The final decision on project approval now rests with Mr. Harper and his cabinet. They have until June 17, 2014 to respond. If Obama does not approve the Keystone XL pipeline, Harper will be under increased pressure to give the go ahead to Northern Gateway despite the wishes of British Columbians and the fact that 2015 is an election year.
Were this to occur, it would be particularly ironic since in 1980, when Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program, Albertans were outraged. They argued that it was utterly inappropriate for the federal government to interfere with their energy policy as it was deemed to be within provincial jurisdiction.
7. Future pipelines
While continuing to oppose the unbounded growth of bitumen extraction from the tar sands and to highlight the dangers of transporting it across our province; we must be honest about the immense economic pressure to transport it across B.C. so that it can be exported overseas. While the safest solution for B.C. would be no new pipelines, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about what proposals are on the table.
David Black is one of my constituents, and I met with him to explore the details behind his refinery proposal. From what I gathered, he too wants to protect this coast and, in my view, it is his opposition to the sheer recklessness of proposing to load super tankers with impossible-to-clean-up dilbit that has caused him to search for alternatives. He too is apparently concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, which is why he proposed to build a refinery using the more expensive Fischer-Tropsch technology.
As with any fossil fuel project, the Kitimat refinery proposal poses serious environmental risks, not the least of which concerns a pipeline he would need to build to feed the refinery. Even if British Columbia insisted that bitumen be upgraded to synthetic crude in Alberta prior to its shipment, any transport of oil beneath our rivers is risky business, and so far I haven’t seen any appetite by British Columbians to take on these kinds of risks.
Any major project like this across the unceded territories of our First Nations fundamentally requires First Nation support as partners from the onset, not after the fact. Any major project like this would require a social licensefrom British Columbians for it to proceed.
The Kitimat refinery proposal goes a long way to address the second of the five B.C. government conditions. It meets the sixth condition of the B.C. Green Party since Black would propose shipping diesel, propane, and jet fuel, rather than heavy oil. These products are already shipped to the islands along our coast to meet local needs. But he certainly has his work cut out for him if he wishes to meet the other conditions.
8. Positioning ourselves for tomorrow
As the Green MLA for Oak-Bay Gordon Head, the first Green MLA in North America, and as someone who has spent my life working in the area of climate science, for anyone to suggest that I am “pro-oil” or “pro-pipeline” is, frankly, ridiculous.
Do I believe that we should strive to build value-added industry and to create good, long term jobs for British Columbians? Absolutely. Did I say that the Kitimat refinery proposal has merit? Yes, within the context outlined above and as we transition to a low carbon economy. Am I in advocating for pipelines? No. Am I endorsing a specific project? No.
Let’s move beyond the eye-popping headlines and see what I actually said in the articles that appeared in the Georgia Straight here and here, the Victoria Times Colonist, and the Prince George Citizen.
- “I like to think the Green Party as a science-based, evidence-based common sense party,”
- “It’s a party that realizes that we need gasoline in our cars but we also need to have a strategy to wean ourselves off that.”
- “We’ve always said we’d like to see a transition as quickly as possible away from fossil-fuel dependence to renewable forms, and if we can use some of the wealth of today to assist us in that transition rapidly, so much the better,”
- “Rail is bad news, dilbit in the water is bad news, dilbit on land over rivers and streams is potentially very bad news”
- “B.C. Greens have agreed and accepted the five conditions of the B.C. Liberal government”
- “there should be no transport of diluted bitumen both on land, which means through a pipeline, and coastal waters.”
- “Obviously as the Green Party [MLA], I’d prefer to keep it in the ground as much as possible and start to invest sooner than later into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow, but I’m pragmatic and I recognize at some point one may need to develop a compromise and a compromise solution is one that would actually give jobs in B.C.”
- “He said the upgraded synthetic crude, while still posing some environmental challenges, would be better than a diluted bitumen pipeline similar to the one proposed by Northern Gateway.”
- “As far as I’m concerned, the Northern Gateway project is dead”
- “But you don’t move society forward by only saying no to everything.” - That sure doesn’t look like advocating for a specific project. In fact, you’ll also note:
- “Weaver doesn’t think its appropriate for an MLA to endorse or advocate for a specific project”
We must find solutions to transition our society away from fossil fuels in general, and coal in particular. However we must also recognize that this transition will not happen overnight. The coming decades will still see oil in our plastics and gas in our cars.
The British Columbia Green Party is a party of solutions, principled, pragmatic, and focused on building a prosperous green British Columbia. To do this, we must be prepared to think outside the box and give any proposal a fair hearing, assessing it on its merits, and then deciding what is in the best interest of the province.
But it is British Columbians alone who can make these decisions. I believe that our democracy should be healthy enough for us to discuss the options we have and difficulties we face, without rushing to judgment. Our province has great potential, but it is only when we can talk together, that we can move toward the future we deserve.
And finally, let’s be clear, the B.C. Green Party is not a protest movement. We are a political party trying to move us forward towards a sustainable world recognizing that we are not there now. That is why I am hoping to reinvigorate the energy debate in B.C. We need to discuss uncomfortable issues in an open and honest way. To those politicians who claim to be so concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, where are your voices in opposition to the proposed expansion of thermal coal exports? To those politicians who claim to be concerned about heavy oil spills, where are your voices with respect to existing dilbit transported to Burnaby and through our coastal waters? You should be joining me in demanding that bitumen is upgraded to synthetic crude in Alberta and that heavy oil be kept out of our coastal waters. To those politicians who claim to be against pipelines, where are your voices with respect to the growing trend of rail transport and the fact that the common carrier obligation prohibits a rail company from saying no to transport?
It’s time to get politics out of environmental policy and environmental policy into politics. After all, the environment really doesn’t care what political party you belong to.