I have spent countless hours debunking misinformation about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) project. I have done so as a pragmatic environmentalist who has spent the time necessary to become informed about the relative risks associated with the project. In doing so I have come to the conclusion that it is the best of a number of poor choices for a province that relies heavily on fossil fuels and will need to do so for the foreseeable future. While I have been doing my homework, a hard-core cadre of environmental activists have been working to spread misinformation and half-truths about the project. All their hard work has come together in what can only be described as their magnum opus. A piece in the Guardian by a Councillor for the Squamish Nation that weaves all the best misinformation into one glorious tapestry of bunk. In this blog post I will try to deconstruct the mess that is this Guardian article.
You can tell this Guardian article is not grounded in reality when it starts with obvious and inexcusable errors. In only the second paragraph the author claims that Vancouver will export “up to a million barrels of crude oil per day”. Quite the feat for a pipeline expansion that involves expanding a pipeline from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day with much of that volume dedicated to local and/or regional use. The estimated export volume is approximately half the number presented in the article.
The hyperbole doesn’t end there. A few paragraphs later the author claims that diluted bitumen is “the world’s most toxic oil”. This is a ridiculous falsehood pushed by activists who apparently don’t understand what “toxic” means. Diluted bitumen, due to its chemical nature, is less toxic to humans than most refined fuels we use every day. To explain, the most toxic components in petroleum hydrocarbon mixtures are their aromatic constituents (like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes or BTEX). Relatively speaking bitumen has some of the lowest BTEX concentrations of all crude oils. As for the condensate (the diluent in diluted bitumen) it is also extremely low in BTEX as it is made up mostly of less toxic aliphatic hydrocarbons. Certainly both bitumen and condensate have some benzene (the five year average for benzene concentration in Cold Lake Blend is 0.23% +/- 0.03 %) but West Texas Intermediate crude has twice the benzene while low-benzene gasoline has almost 4 times as much. Sure diluted bitumen is toxic but so is gasoline, aviation fuel and West Texas Intermediate crude all of which are more toxic to humans than diluted bitumen.
As for the suggestion that spilled diluted bitumen will “kill everything that now lives there, forever”. Diluted bitumen is not an existential threat to humanity. Rather, diluted bitumen behaves pretty much like other heavy crude oils when spilled. As for clean-up, according to Transport Canada it is somewhat easier to clean than heavy crude and in the one example of a marine spill, in the Burrard Inlet, they were able to recover 95% of the spilled material. The 10% -15% number the author cites is open ocean spills not spills in a well-managed port.
Talking ports, the article spends a lot of time implying that the Port of Vancouver is overly dangerous for tankers. The reality is the Port of Vancouver was placed where it was because it is such a safe, protected place for ships to dock. The Burrard Inlet is well sheltered and the Salish Sea, bounded on all sides by land, is a relatively calm body of water. There is a reason that Tofino advertises itself as the place to go for storm watching but Parksville does not. Compared to the seas these ocean-going tankers are used to (like the North Pacific), the Burrard Inlet is as dangerous as a bathroom sink and the Salish Sea may as well be a bathtub. As for the currents, the First and Second Narrows can’t hold a candle to a North Pacific storm. Moreover, in those tighter passages the tankers will be accompanied by two tugs and local pilots. Ultimately, the author is trying to create a tempest in a teapot.
Admittedly the article gets even more bizarre in the section where the author imagines a dystopian future where our governments somehow decide to give up enforcing marine regulations. The author posits a future when Vancouver Harbour becomes some sort of Mad Max mayhem zone where unregulated ships fight for supremacy and no one is there to ensure the safety of our communities…and what is a “mega-tanker” anyways? This section represents more a case of speculative fiction than opinion.
I am going to be careful with this next part. As anyone who has read my work knows, I have studiously avoided the First Nations’ file. The reason for this is simple, I am not an expert on issues surrounding First Nations sovereignty (or consultation) and have been careful to “stay in my lane”. That being said assessing relative risks is my lane and that is what needs to be considered in this discussion.
Let’s start with a simple truth. The majority of British Columbia consists of unceded land and any development on unceded land needs the involvement and consultation of any affected First Nations. That being said under Canadian law First Nations do not hold a veto power over projects in their historic territories. Specifically, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has confirmed that:
- Consultation is not intended to address historic grievances, but rather the incremental impact of specific Crown decisions on aboriginal and treaty rights. Nevertheless, cumulative effects are relevant (according to the SCC in Chippewas).
- The duty to consult does not provide a “veto” for Indigenous people over Crown decisions. Balance and compromise are inherent in the consultation process and are key elements of reconciliation (according to the SCC in Chippewas).
This raises a very important topic that opponents of the pipeline have ignored. The Crown owes the same fiduciary obligations to all First Nations and has to consider cumulative risks to each First Nation associated with a project. I have been repeatedly informed on Twitter that each First Nation is sovereign and has the right to make decisions for itself. While that is true the Crown is left with the challenging task of finding a compromise when a project’s risks affect two or more First Nations differently. There is an old quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This quote has never been truer than in the pipeline debate. As I have tried to explain, the pipeline debate is all about relative risk. Closing a door somewhere means that another door must be opened somewhere else, or put another way the Squamish Nation’s ability to swing their arms ends where the Cheam or Semiahmoo First Nations’ noses begin.
To understand what I mean let’s look at how Washington State gets its crude oil. In 2003, 91% of the crude used in the Puget Sound came by tanker (from Alaska) while the remaining 9% came via the Trans Mountain pipeline. So far in 2018, 46.2% of the crude oil used in the Puget Sound was moved by tankers while 28.4% was moved by pipeline and 25.4% was moved by train. What does that mean in real numbers? Between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018 almost 55 million barrels of oil were transported by rail in Washington State. The monthly numbers have been pretty steady since 2016 with quarterly numbers ranging from 13.1 million barrels to 14.6 million barrels. From January through March 2018 almost 20,000 rail cars of crude oil traveled for hundreds of kilometers along the banks of the Columbia River to feed Washington’s thirst for crude oil. This represents a weekly average of 1,525 rail cars carrying 1,038,382 barrels of crude oil with 91% of that oil being the highly explosive light oil coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.
As for pipelines, Between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018 almost 61.2 million barrels of oil were imported to Washington via pipeline and almost 100 million barrels of oil were imported via tanker. Speaking of tankers, as described in the National Post
In 2012 there were 1,197 tanker “movements” through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to the National Energy Board. When operating at full capacity, the Trans Mountain pipeline will only tack on an additional 720 tanker movements. Some years, in fact, the total number of extra vessels brought to the Salish Sea by Trans Mountain will be comparable to the traffic at a single Washington oil refinery. Cherry Point, a BP refinery within sight of Metro Vancouver, counted an average of 321 calls from oil tankers between 1998 and 2010. The Trans Mountain expansion is expected to add only 300 tankers per year into the region.
Now I understand that I have lost a lot of you with all these numbers but here is my point. If we decide to eliminate the TMX project, the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means. In previous posts I presented the details of the risk assessments that show that the project will not significantly increase the relative marine risks but without the TMX our inland risks go up precipitously.
Now this is where the Crown comes in. Certainly the Squamish Nation can argue that the increase in tanker traffic will increase the likelihood of a major spill from one in every 3093 years to one in every 2366 years, but the Crown has to look at those 20,000 rail cars a year running along the Columbia River, each of which puts a number of interior First Nations at risk. Absent the TMX more oil trains will run down the Thompson and Fraser River valleys putting peoples like the Cheam and Sto:lo at increased risk. If BP needs to keep shipping oil from overseas it puts the Semiahmoo at increased risk. The Crown has to balance these risks. It can’t simply say that it will protect the Squamish and completely ignore the Cheam, the Sto:lo or the Semiahmoo. I can’t say it enough, the Crown owes a fiduciary duty to all First Nations and has to balance the risks so that no individual First Nation is singled out for extreme risk. That will mean that the Crown may have to impose higher risks on some Nations than those Nations would prefer but the Crown does so in order to protect other Nations.
What makes the Crown’s job even harder is that the activists have spent a decade muddying the waters so that well-meaning people (presumably like the author of this Guardian article) actually believe the hogwash the activists have been selling them. They have been convinced to believe falsehoods like:
- diluted bitumen is the “world’s most toxic oil”;
- contrary to experience we will not be capable of cleaning an oil spill in the Burrard Inlet;
- ocean-going tankers designed to survive in the North Pacific and attached to escort tugs will be overwhelmed by the current around First Narrows;
- if they say no to the pipeline, the oil trains will simply stop running to the Puget Sound;
- the resident orcas will be overwhelmed by the addition of 600 tankers but not by the addition of thousands of ships in the Ports of Vancouver and Seattle;
- the Liberian tankers moving Saudi crude that will be left feeding the Puget Sound refineries will be as well regulated as the Canadian tankers that are regulated by the NEB; and
- we will come up with a magical technological advances that will allow us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in such a short time-frame that we won’t need the pipeline.
What is most frustrating, from my perspective, is that the activists have even managed to convince some of the First Nations on the Fraser River that the pipeline is a greater risk to their communities than oil-by-rail. This means these First Nations are now fighting a project that has the potential to significantly decrease the risks to their communities. As someone who cares about human and ecological health, this is the saddest part of the entire story.