On politicians shading the truth about diluted bitumen

One of the most frustrating parts of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline debate is dealing with all the misinformation out there. I can’t count the number of people who have assured me that the TMX is only about exporting bitumen to Asia and other such nonsense. What I find particularly frustrating is when legitimate political leaders make statements that they know, or reasonably should know, aren’t entirely correct. Shading the truth is fine for anonymous commentators on Twitter but is absolutely infuriating when done by the people we elect to represent us. In this blog post I want to look at three recent cases when important political leaders made statements they knew, or should reasonably have known, were not entirely correct.

My first case involves the B.C. Minister of Environment & Climate Change Strategy, Mr. George Heyman. As anyone who was watching the news will remember, Mr. Heyman was all over the news last week talking about the lack of science available on the behaviour of diluted bitumen during spills. Here he is on Global News saying things like:

“There are gaps in our knowledge,”  and

“These were identified in the 2015 report by the Royal Society of Canada. We need to fill those gaps in knowledge.”

The problem is that any reasonably informed observer knows that there has been a huge amount of work done since the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report was produced in 2015. I have written two blog posts describing advances in this field and was going to produce a long section describing all the advances since 2015. But then, lo and behold, Transport Canada went and did my work for me. Take a look at this incredible document they produced highlighting the millions of dollars of research the federal government has produced to fill in those “gaps” Mr. Heyman discusses.

Now recognize Mr. Heyman oversees a major Ministry with dozens of senior civil servants paid to keep up to date on spills and spill response. Can you really believe that these senior civil servants failed to notice the over 60 research articles directly related to their field of responsibility published in the last few years? How did all his senior bureaucrats somehow not relay to him information about the thousands of hours and millions of dollars of research conducted by some of the best researchers in Canada and the US? Yet there he was appearing all over the media acting as if our information-base hadn’t progressed since 2015. Am I supposed to believe they completely missed all the advances in the science for the last half-decade?

My second case involves Dr. Andrew Weaver, Leader of the Green Party of BC. As we know, Dr. Weaver is a former scientist. As a former scientist, Dr. Weaver knows that evidence-based decision-making requires one to balance all the information in a field and not simply to cherry-pick information that helps advance his preferred narrative. Yet that is precisely what Dr. Weaver has been doing on the diluted bitumen file. Here is Dr. Weaver from Power Play discussing the behaviour of dilbit in a marine spill. Scroll forward to 2 minutes :

We need to recognize too we are not talking about oil shipment, we are talking about the shipment through pipelines of diluted bitumen, a substance that when spilled with particulate matter, in water with suspended particles in it, it sinks, we cannot clean up a spill…[my transcription]

Now I won’t go deeply into his “diluted bitumen is not oil” shtick. My interest is in the second half of the sentence. Notice how he was being incredibly precise in his word choice. That was not by accident, but rather appears to represent him very carefully picking the biggest cherry off the tree. Technically, everything he said in the second half of the sentence is true, but in telling that truth he omits a lot. To explain, consider what I wrote in my previous post: A layman’s guide to the behaviour of diluted bitumen in a marine spill

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….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.

So yes, as Dr. Weaver suggests, diluted bitumen will sink when they form OPAs. But to do so they need to be exposed to high concentrations of fine silts and/or clays. This is something you don’t see over virtually the entire Salish Sea. To understand let’s take a quick look from the air at the Salish Sea, here is a great photo from NASA (caution big file)


Look at how incredibly blue all the water is. Only that tiny area in the immediate outflow of the Fraser River has the types of sediments where OPAs  would be an issue and they disappear almost right away into those essentially sediment-free waters. Now consider the Burrard Inlet which is also a beautiful blue in the photo, indicating virtually no sediment. That would be the area where the Burrard Inlet spill of 2007 occurred. That would be the spill where virtually no OPAs were formed and almost 95% of the spilled dibit was recovered. So much for “it sinks” and “we cannot clean up a spill“.

Looking at Roberts Bank and south, sediment is not an issue there either, nor is it through the entire rest of the Salish Sea. Thus, what Dr. Weaver said on Power Play was technically correct: if a tanker spilled right in the middle of the Fraser River plume some of that spill may indeed sink. But that is not how he framed the discussion was it? He made this one very small and very specific area sound like it was the norm for the entire route. That is simply not true. As I have pointed out previously, Fisheries and Oceans Canada modeled an oil spill in the Salish Sea and concluded that the majority of the oil would stay on the surface rather than dispersing into the water column. That would mean that the floating oil would be recoverable using current spill response technologies. Listening to Dr. Weaver’s interviews over the last week he has repeatedly stressed the sinking scenario even though we now know that scenario only applies in a tiny bit of the Salish Sea, in what is the widest sea lanes in the entire route.

My final case involves Ms. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada. She has been a constant treat on the internet with one of her big talking points being about the transportation of bitumen by rail. Look at her timeline and it is full of comments about the safety of diluted bitumen. She thinks it can’t spill in a rail spill. Here is one example: 

When bitumen moves by rail, it is solid. It can’t spill and it can’t catch fire. @AlbertaGrl @Proud_Canadian1 @GregTaylor100 @dgeorge7007

In the last year, I have corrected Ms. May at least three times on Twitter and each time I have directed her to documentation she could read to get the information right. Each time she has ignored the information provided and continues to make unsupportable arguments. Now don’t get me wrong here, there is the tinniest nugget of truth in Ms. May’s barrage of confusion but you have to look really deep to discover it.

Clearly what Ms. May has been talking about is a product called “neatbit”. For those not familiar with neatbit here is a great primer on the subject. To summarize, neatbit is raw bitumen transported in a heated rail car. As long as the rail car stays warm, the neatbit will flow, but once the rail car cools down it returns to its almost inert solid form. Neatbit thus addresses the biggest concerns about the overland transport of diluted bitumen (derailments and spills). A derailment into a river would pose little danger to the river as the material would solidify almost instantly upon contact with water and could be cleaned up with shovels and excavators while posing very little long-term risk to the environment. Now for the problem.

While neatbit is a great solution to a serious problem it has some serious issues. Neatbit can only be shipped from a facility designed to heat and move neatbit. It then can only be shipped in specially-designed rail cars built specifically to carry neatbit and keep it hot the entire voyage. Finally it has to go directly to a refinery designed to accept neatbit. If you put neatbit on a ship, by the time that ship reaches its destination its hold will be as solid as the asphalt I drive my minivan on and just as easy to handle. To ship neatbit overseas would mean designing and building a whole new class of marine vessel. So when Ms. May claims that bitumen can be shipped by rail what she means is that a tiny pilot project with a small number of specially designed rail cars has been moving neatbit to one refinery on the Gulf Coast. The reality of the transportation industry is that virtually all the bitumen transported by rail goes either as “railbit” which is about 15% diluent and is transported by insulated rail cars and can’t go on ships or as “dilbit” which contains about 30% diluent and can be moved to ships. If rail cars with either of these products have an accident the result would be a spill that would be like any other oil spill.

To be clear, there have been a lot of alternative ideas about how to make the shipping of raw bitumen by rail (including balls of bitumen and bitumen pucks) but none are out of the research stage. So when Ms. May makes her interesting claims about shipping bitumen by rail, it is time to tune her out because it is clear she appears to have no clue what she is talking about. Now isn’t that a bizarre recognition. The leader of a national political party (admittedly a fringe party) should not be making claims that are so easily demonstrated to be bunk.

Reading what I have written I am saddened that our political leaders are so willing to shade the truth on such an important national topic. From omitting critical facts; to cherry picking preferred narratives; to outright confusion about how the product can be moved, the political scorecard on diluted bitumen is a sad one. I can only hope that as organizations like Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada start broadcasting the truth about the material that more scientists and others will call out politicians when they try to push half-truths and misleading scenarios about the material. Only then can we come up with reasonable evidence-based policy options.

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

15 Responses to On politicians shading the truth about diluted bitumen

  1. chrism56 says:

    Blair I think you are being over-optimistic, if not naïve, to think that modern politicians would tell the truth, even if it meant saying inconvenient facts. In the error of focus groups and sound bites, it is all about spin and preaching to the converted. Putting your message out there is a lot higher priority that recognizing the actual situation that it is always nuanced and messy. Think back. When have you ever heard a politician say “I was wrong. I believed this but when I found out this fact, I changed my opinion”.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. David Huntley says:

    The Burnaby 2007 pipeline rupture did NOT spill dilbit as you stated. The Transportation Safety Board report, P07H0040, states it was crude oil. I was there at the time; the Mayor told me that if it had been diluted bitumen it would have been an entirely different matter.


  3. Andrew Adams says:

    Thanks for clearing up the lies and half truths spoken by our politicians. Of course what can you expect from people who believe the falsehood that the whole problem of CO2 emissions can be blamed only on the fossil fuel industry when the undeniable truth is that at least 75% of CO2 emissions occur when fossil fuels are burned in our internal combustion and jet engines and other devices. So if one was serious about reducing CO2 emissions then the first line of attack should be to reduce the total number of fossil fuel burning devices. This means that the environmental activists are using the wrong strategy to attack the problem of reducing CO2 emissions. Their wrong strategy has us all running around like chickens with our heads cut off chasing the shutdown of the fossil fuel industry and its infrastructure. The fact is that the fossil fuel industry itself is only directly responsible for 10-15% of all CO2 emissions. I can’t believe that the environmentalists including the supposedly intelligent Dr. Suzuki can be so stupid that they are wasting everyone’s time and effort attacking the serious problem using the wrong strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. George says:

    I’m curious what you think about the comments from the three scientists in this CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/chemical-weapon-science-exploding-ants-and-more-1.4625156/trans-mountain-spill-could-have-significant-impacts-says-canadian-government-scientist-1.4628110

    The scientists are Dr. Bruce Hollebone, a chemist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Dr. Wendy Palen, an associate professor of ecology of aquatic communities, who co-authored a paper that reviewed over 9000 peer-reviewed studies about the effects of bitumen in marine ecosystems, and Dr. David Schindler, a professor emeritus of biological sciences from the University of Alberta, who says he’s concerned about the 800 rivers and streams the TMX pipeline will cross.


      • George says:

        Well, it addresses one of the three scientists in the CBC article. Even though the ‘Frontiers’ paper is a more general synthesis report, I have to say, after reading that Vancouver Sun article, I share Dr. Sisk’s concern about the lack of transparency, the rushed one-day assessment, and the lack of feedback by the government. That’s not going to help boost public confidence in the process.


      • Blair says:

        It wasn’t a “rushed” assessment. The overall assessment was carried out over years. It only took a day to read the Frontiers paper and recognize that it provided no specific insight into the process

        Liked by 1 person

      • George says:

        But that is difficult to determine when there isn’t transparency in the process. The scientists should be getting a scientific explanation from the people involved as to why the synthesis report is not relevant or adds nothing new instead of having to hear it through journalists via freedom-of-information requests. That is not good science and does not help boost public confidence in the process.


      • Blair says:

        Why would they expect that? They provided a report that provided no significant advances on the science at the very last minute. Other intervenors who provided useless information didn’t get personalized responses, why should they?


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