More chemically-uninformed fear-mongering about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – this time about the dangers of diluted bitumen

In my last post, I presented details of how activists were misrepresenting the health risks of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project due to their lack of chemical expertise. In that post, I noted that it represented another of many examples of activists with no chemical background making false chemical claims about the project. See my post on the Trans Mountain Sumas Pump Station spill for another example. Well wouldn’t you know it, the day after I published that blog post I was sent a link to yet another activist video that fails the chemistry smell test. This one is being distributed by The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust initiative with the particularly unsubtle title:


Needless to say I took the 2 minutes necessary to watch the video and was truly impressed by how much pure chemical wrongness they were able to compress into a 2 minute video.

The video starts with truly ominous music and a quote from the BC government on the TMX.

The BC Government says Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline and tanker project should not move forward until the “scientific uncertainties” of diluted bitumen (dilbit) are studied further.

Nothing instills confidence in a production like knowing that the producers couldn’t find a quote that acknowledges that the TMX project is no longer owned by Kinder Morgan. The video then goes on to show lots of messy bitumen with an ominous voice-over that says:

When you wash the sand out of the tar sand in Fort McMurray, you get bitumen and it is tar.

Okay I could have forgiven the activists referring to the oil sands as “tar sands” but seriously, if you are going to present a video titled “What is diluted bitumen” the least you can do is understand the chemistry of bitumen. Bituminous sands consist of a combination of sand and bituminous oils, which are a type of heavy crude oil. As I discuss in a previous post on the topic, there is no tar in bitumen. This is not some pedantic argument, it is simple chemistry.

Tar is not a naturally occurring geologic product. You cannot drill a well to get tar. Tar is a distillation product that is obtained by the high-temperature decomposition of wood products or coal. So when I heard their expert claim that raw bitumen was “tar” I knew I wasn’t dealing with anyone informed about hydrocarbon chemistry.

The next clip of the video introduces their expert on diluted bitumen. Unsurprisingly, their expert is nothing of the sort. The video presents him as having “worked for 50 years in Alberta’s oil industry“, but digging a bit deeper one discovers, via his profile in Common Ground, that:

Steve Bramwell is a retired oil sands worker and a 50 year member of International Electrical Workers Union Local 424, Edmonton.

Yes, you read that right, the chemical expert in this activist video is an industrial electrician. Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised that the activists couldn’t find an expert in petroleum chemistry to talk about diluted bitumen because if they had one the video would never have been produced in the first place as the expert would have explained all their errors before the video left production.

Not being aware of Steve, prior to viewing this video, I looked him up and he appears to have been featured regularly in activist social media posts about the pipeline. I found another video of him being interviewed by Ben West near the Fraser River titled: Alberta Oil Industry Insider on the Dangers of Kinder Morgan and Diluted Bitumen and find it amusing that he is viewed by the activists as an “insider” given how much basic information he gets wrong.

In the “insider” video he claims there are videos all over YouTube that apparently show dilbit explosions. He makes a special note of discussing one in London, England. Now for the life of me I can’t remember a dilbit explosion video from London, England and a brief search of YouTube failed to uncover said video. The easiest way of knowing these videos don’t actually exist is that (as we will see later) the producers of this video couldn’t find any dilbit explosions to feature in this very presentation.

Steve goes on to explain that in order to dilute bitumen (to create dilbit) they add a natural gas condensate that is “toxic and explosive“.

Let’s stop here for a second. The truth of the matter is that petroleum hydrocarbon mixtures are indeed toxic. That is the nature of the product. We don’t buy gasoline because it is a nutritious drink to go along with our morning toast instead of orange juice; we buy it because it is explosive and rich in important chemical components necessary for our industrial society. Trying to scare people by telling them that oil is toxic is a bit like telling people to be afraid of the sun because it is bright.

Steve then goes on to inform us that “hexane” is a component of condensate and that hexane is “seven times more explosive than gasoline” and that “you need full hazmat to deal with this stuff” Sounds pretty scary right?

The only problem is that hexane is found in all sorts of hydrocarbon mixtures. Steve is correct in that total hexanes make up about 3.88% of the mixture by mass for Western Canada Dilbit. But he appears unaware of the fun fact, that n-hexane (only one of the hexanes observed in gasoline) makes up approximately 3% of gasoline’s volume by mass.

That begs the questions: does Steve mean to say that the hexane in dilbit is seven times more explosive than the approximate same mass of hexane in gasoline? If so that would be false.

Does he mean that dilbit is seven time more volatile than gasoline? That would also be false.

However, if Steve is comparing the hexane in dilbit to the bulk properties of gasoline, without acknowledging that gasoline has virtually the same hexane composition as dilbit, then Steve is either being intellectually dishonest or doesn’t understand hydrocarbon chemistry (I’m guessing the latter based on what I have heard to date).

The truth is dilbit is about as volatile as other crude oil mixtures that are shipped around the planet, and these mixtures are much less explosive than most hydrocarbon gases or refined fuels.

As for the suggestion that you need a full hazmat suit when you deal with a dilbit spill? The truth is you should be wearing a full hazmat suit whenever you deal with any large hydrocarbon spill.

Aren’t we glad they chose to rely on a certified electrician instead of a Chemist to provide them their chemical facts for the video?

The video then presents an excerpt from the 2016 National Academies of Science (NAS) report which I discussed in my previous post. The only problem is that report is out of date. Since the NAS report was completed the Canadian government has spent millions of dollars studying dilbit as I describe in this blog post. That the video relies on out-of-date science really shouldn’t surprise us should it?

Steve then makes another incorrect statement about what happens when a spill hits a river. Once again, we know a lot about what happens when dilbit spills in water and Steve’s version is consistent with his level of chemical expertise (that is, it is mostly wrong).

The video then does a few scare shots of bitumen before cutting to Steve in an interview (the “insider” interview discussed above) where he is asked:

Ben West: The incident that happened in 2007 in Burnaby that was conventional oil?

Steve: that was conventional oil, there was not a lot of explosive gases in that. Luckily it didn’t catch fire.

Here is the formal spill report for the Burrard Inlet spill. As it details, the material spilled in that event was “Albian heavy synthetic crude oil“. As described at Crude Monitor: “Albian Heavy Synthetic (AHS) is a partially upgraded dilbit produced from the Scotford Upgrader.” Put simply, the material spilled was not conventional oil, as claimed, it was a grade of dilbit so much for that “fact”.

The video then takes a particularly impressive turn, by throwing in a line: “Oil & Gas are dangerous enough” and then showing a bunch of disaster porn with burning oil & gas facilities, none of which involve dilbit. Presumably this was how they addressed the problem that the internet has a dearth of videos of dilbit explosions and fires. It is almost as if dilbit is not particularly flammable and in the decades of moving the material across the continent there hasn’t been a spectacular fire they can feature in their videos.

I do have to admit their picture at 1:37, where they show a worker dealing with a spill in a hardhat and waders, tends to run counter to their earlier claim that you need full hazmat suit to address a dilbit spill. They do really need to pick a lane and stick to it.

To end the video they present the famous activist line:

Why would we take on more risk, when we have safer alternatives?

and then show solar panels, wind turbines and an electric train. This is an activist favourite which ignore the simple fact that wind- and solar-derived electricity do not represent an alternative to liquid fuels for most heavy oil uses. As presented in this research paper from Science there are simply too many parts of our economy that are dependent on fossil fuels.

In 2014, difficult-to-eliminate emissions related to aviation, long-distance transportation, and shipping; structural materials; and highly reliable electricity totaled ~9.2 Gt CO2, or 27% of global CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel and industrial sources

That doesn’t even consider the role of heavy oil in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical industries and in building and maintain roadways. Put simply, the “alternatives” they present are nothing of the sort. For the foreseeable future we will need heavy oils to keep our economy functioning.

Amusingly enough, having written this entire piece from scratch, I can almost completely crib my conclusion from my last post to finish this one off. As I wrote [with changes to name the video]: put simply the “What is Dilbit” video being distributed by activists is fatally flawed and should be given no weight in public policy debates about the TMX. That no one has highlighted these flaws before me is simply a testament to the fact that not enough experienced chemists have allowed themselves to be drawn into these regulatory and policy discussions.

That being said, maybe it is time for journalists and regulators to consult with a chemist or two before printing statements or making policy decisions involving significant chemistry content. It is time to stop imagining that expertise only matters in field like engineering and medicine and acknowledge that when the topic of your piece is Chemistry it doesn’t hurt to pass the information by a chemist.

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

3 Responses to More chemically-uninformed fear-mongering about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – this time about the dangers of diluted bitumen

  1. Lorne Babenek says:

    Involving actual SME’s would not allow them to push their agenda….


  2. Alan Nichols says:

    The eco-terrorists have one thing in common: “Don’t confuse me with facts or science”. “We all know scientists are corrupt and paid off by big oil”. “I never liked Chemistry”. “I’m glad they invented calculators because I was never good at math”.


  3. Pingback: Winning: Control the headline, control the story :

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