The question anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion activists refuse to answer

This weekend both pro- and anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) rallies were held. Sadly I couldn’t attend either. I did take advantage of the interest to try to figure out what was going on in the heads of the people fighting TMX so I asked them a question:

My challenge to #StopKM protestors: Show me a safer way than the @TransMtn to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society to the West Coast What is your alternative to #KinderMorgan?

I tagged so I figured that I would get some informed discussion. Some people tried to change the topic but not one addressed the question at hand. At last count the tweet had over 16,000 views with no one actually addressing the question posed. Later in the day I sent out a follow-up which said:

This morning I asked the question: Show me a safer way than @TransMtn to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society to the West Coast What is your alternative to #KinderMorgan? 10,000 views and not 1 response

It got 6,000+ views. I got more non-responses with Tzeporah Berman providing the prototypical answer:

The alternative is don’t expand production.

My reply thread is here 

This blog post will provide the details and the references that I could not fit into a Twitter thread. I hope it will show just how hollow the arguments of the anti-TMX protesters really are.

There is a common misconception about the role of pipelines in our daily lives. We live in a society that is dependent on oil and oil products. These products aren’t just refined into gasoline and diesel to run our vehicles; they also serve as the feedstocks for the petrochemical industry which provides the building blocks of our plastics, cell phones and many of the drugs we take when we are sick. Without fossil fuels our economy would simply stop. Every calorie eaten by David Suzuki has fossil fuels carbon incorporated into it. There is literally no food a Vancouverite can eat that wasn’t in some direct way, obtained using fossil fuels.

As I have written previously, British Columbia is nowhere close to reaching a fossil fuel-free status. So let’s acknowledge the reality, we need gasoline, diesel and oil to run our society. So where do these oil products come from? In coastal B.C. most of it comes via the Trans-Mountain pipeline. So let’s look at what the pipeline currently does:

The Trans-Mountain currently has a capacity of about 300,000 barrels a day (b/d).

Now you will notice that I said that only half of Parkland’s raw crude comes via the pipeline. You might ask: why? The reason so much of the Parkland refinery’s crude comes by rail is that the current pipeline is typically oversubscribed by about 30% on a month-to-month basis. This means that only about 60% of the product that shippers want to send on the pipeline actually ends up on the pipeline. There is simply not enough room to get all the crude and refined fuel we need on the West Coast to the West Coast using the existing pipeline. So when activists say we have enough capacity that is simply wrong the pipeline is already unable to ship all the production that we need to move.

Because of the shortage of volume on the pipeline Vancouver Island is supplied with almost all of its refined products via barges from Vancouver and the Puget Sound.

So let’s talk about the TMX because this is another case of the activists always getting their facts wrong. I cannot count the number of people who claimed on my timeline this weekend that the pipeline was only to export bitumen to Asia. That is what they have been told and heaven help the person who directs them to the National Energy Board documents that say otherwise. Well here is what the NEB submission actually says:

The TMX has two major components:

  • Line 1 would consist of existing pipeline segments (with pump upgrades) and could transport 350,000 b/d of refined petroleum products and light crude. It has the capability to carry bitumen but at a much reduced volume per day. Notice that absent the heavier bitumen it can carry an extra 50,000 b/d. Line 1 is intended to help mitigate the supply bottleneck that has Vancouver drivers paying such high prices for gasoline and diesel (as I will explain later).
  • The proposed Line 2 would have a capacity of 540,000 b/d and is allocated to the transportation of heavy crude oil. 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.

A big complaint is that much of the increased pipeline capacity is for “export” but “export” can mean a lot of things. Thanks to the lack of refining capacity in the Vancouver region, we actually “export” oil and almost immediately need to re-import it as aviation and jet fuel from the Cherry Point refinery in Washington (or as refined fuels on Vancouver Island).

Most Canadians don’t know that there are five major refineries in the Puget Sound with a combined capacity of 647,000 b/d. So why is that important? For the last 20 years, up to 600,000 b/d of Alaskan crude have traveled down the coast of B.C., in tankers, and into the Puget Sound. Now let’s talk about some hypocrisy. US NGOs bragged about sending busloads of protesters to the Saturday rally. One of their complaints was the increased tanker traffic. In response Stewart Muir of ResourceWorks tweeted this:


It is a map from the TankerTracker App that shows that at the same time as Seattle protesters were driving up the coast to complain, eight tankers were in US waters. Unlike the tankers under the TMX none of these tankers are carrying local pilots while attached to two rescue tugs. These American protesters came up to Vancouver to fight against seven tankers a week when they have eight tankers in their waters at the same time. Could these activists be any more hypocritical?

Now a not well-known fact is that the Alaskan oil fields are drying up and new sources are needed to keep the Pacific Northwest in fuel. As a result, new railway capacity is being built to supply up to 725,000 b/d of Bakken crude to the West Coast and the Puget Sound refineries. The route will travel over any number of rivers including the headwaters of the Kootenay River and alongside the Columbia River to the Puget Sound.

Transporting oil and gas by pipeline or rail is in general quite safe. But when comparing rail to pipelines, rail is over 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence than pipelines, and when it does, we get more Gogamas, Galenas and Lac Megantics. But the big ones and the ones we hear about, they aren’t the only ones, let’s not forget the dozen or so other rail issues that didn’t make our local press. As for the protectors of our coast they never mention the Mosier derailment that came within feet of hitting the Columbia River. We share the Columbia with our American cousins and if they need to transport crude along the Columbia it is only a matter of time before a big spill happens there and then what will the activists be saying?

In a previous blog post I did the math and realized that because of where the rail lines run (along the river valleys), the 4.5 times number is not even relevant in BC, Washington or Oregon. The number is actually much higher. The environmentalists claim to want to protect our fragile ecosystem but instead they will greatly increase the likelihood of a spill and when that spill happens it could wipe out the Columbia or Fraser River fisheries…something the activists choose not to talk about while simultaneously complaining that the TMX will put those fisheries at risk.

To put my number into perspective according to industry statistics, in 2014 about 185,000 b/d of Western Canadian crude oil was transported to market by rail. In 2018, rail volumes are estimated at around 500,000 b/d to 600,000 b/d if Keystone XL is not available.

Now before I finish up I have to point out another way in which the anti-TMX activists are talking out of both sides of their mouths. I can’t count the number of activists who declare that Alberta should refine bitumen in Alberta. Well had any of them bothered to do their research they would discover that Alberta is about to open up its first new refinery in decades: the Sturgeon refinery It is the first refinery built exclusively to refine bitumen and has cost billions to build.  Now that the refinery is almost ready to go online guess what one of its biggest headaches will be? That’s right getting its production to market. The Trans Mountain is oversubscribed and the rail lines are full. One of the big benefits of the TMX will be the space opened up in Line 1 for refined fuels. British Columbia could finally have a steady supply of clean, Canadian diesel. But only if the pipeline is upgraded.

So I’ve thrown a lot of numbers around but let’s go back to my original question to the activists. We have now clearly demonstrated that the current pipeline capacity to the West Coast is inadequate to supply demand. The volume in excess of demand still needs to get here so what is their solution?

  • Absent the TMX we will be seeing more foreign tankers in Washington waters. Those tankers will not meet the stringent safety requirements that the NEB has imposed on the TMX ships but those tankers will be still sailing through the same “treacherous” waters. So we see a significant increase in risk from tanker spills.
  • Absent the TMX upgrade we will see a significant increase in oil-by-rail to the Puget Sound (Bakken oil transported along the Columbia River Valley).
  • Absent the TMX we will see continued movement of oil-by-rail to the Lower Mainland down the Thompson and Fraser River valleys. A spill on any of the rivers is more likely by rail than by pipeline and would cause untold damage to endangered fisheries.

Remember the complaint about all the oil being exported? Well it is likely that a major “export” location for Trans-Mountain oil will be the Puget Sound with most of that increase traveling along the existing upgraded pipeline. Much of the remaining export will be to California which is also suffering from a heavy oil shortage. Due to its proximity, tankers from Vancouver to California will be the cheapest way for California to get heavy fuel which means Albertans will get the best price for that oil (as there will not be a transportation premium).

We need to move towards a society where oil products are not used for power or fuel but that is not going to happen in the next decade or even two. Until that day comes, we need these products and the safest, most environmentally responsible way to get them to us over land is via pipelines. While we transition away from fossil fuels lets ensure that we use the safest modes of transport in order to protect our joint ecological heritage. The argument that we can do without simply doesn’t hold water. Currently (and for the next 20+ years) our transportation and food systems will remain utterly dependent on fossil fuels to keep our communities and economies alive. Given those real needs a pragmatic environmentalist looks for the safest way to move those fossil fuels and in this case that means pipelines like the Trans-Mountain.


Dr. Andrew Leach has used NEB data to graph what has gone through the pipeline since 2006. This is presented below:

Leach Graph

note that in the last few years Westbridge terminal has not been receiving its full allotment for export as the domestic light going to Burnaby (and presumably Parkland – see below) has displaced some of the marine exports.


The best thing about a blog is when someone reads it and can provide help to make it better. In this case I received information from Parkland that updates the information that I have relied on from a previous source. In this blog post, I reported that that the Parkland refinery in Burnaby gets about half  of its 55,000 b/d from the Trans Mountain and half by rail due to the lack of space on the existing pipeline. That reference is now out of date. I have been contacted by a representative from Parkland who informs me that unlike Chevron, Parkland now gets all its supply from the Trans Mountain. I will be editing my blog posts accordingly.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

102 Responses to The question anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion activists refuse to answer

  1. Pingback: Revisiting activist myths about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – or Why Climate leaders may sometimes need to build pipelines | A Chemist in Langley

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