Understanding what the PBO report says about the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project

Another day has passed and another report has been released about the viability of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX). This new report titled “Trans Mountain Pipeline – Financial and Economic Considerations – Update” was produced by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) to provide an “updated analysis of the Trans Mountain assets“.  It takes little imagination to guess that this report was immediately seized on and misconstrued by activists who claimed:

Today, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, published a report clearly stating that Canada has to choose between climate action and building the #TransMountain pipeline


Wasting another $12.6 billion on #TMX makes no sense. PBO confirmed building expansion is incompatible with Net Zero by 2050

Needless to say the PBO report says nothing of the sort. Rather, the report presents a number of conservative scenarios, some well-founded, some ill-founded, to assess the net present value (NPV) of the TMX. Here is the critical graph from the report:

As I will describe in the blog post, this graph, with all its red ink, is not actually representative of the expected profitability and wealth-generating capacity of the TMX. Rather a careful read of the PBO report shows that the TMX remain a project that will increase our national wealth while turning a profit for its owners.

The PBO report presents five major assumptions used in developing their NPV estimate for the project:

  • In-service date,
  • Construction costs,
  • Pipeline utilization
  • Long-term Discount rate, and
  • Service and tolling framework

I have no issue with their assumptions for “In-service date” and “Construction costs”. These variables are consistent with generally accepted ranges. As I will detail below, I have a serious disagreement with the report’s choice of discount rates; pipeline utilization; and service and tolling framework.

In my mind, the PBO report uses an overly conservative long-term discount rate. The discount rates chosen would be appropriate for a private sector project, where the private sector entity had to borrow on the private equity market, but that is no longer the case for the TMX. The TMX is a government project now and the analysis should assume a discount rate consistent with what the government uses for other infrastructure projects. Those values tend to be below 8.0% not 8.5% or 9.0%. Thus, in my mind, we can eliminate the 9.0% columns in the table above.

My biggest complaint with the report is with the arguments used to justify the choices in the “Service and Tolling Framework after 20-year contracts expire” columns. I will start by noting that others are also confused. One economist I follow on Twitter noted:

The evidence submitted during the tolling methodology hearing indicated a target ROR [rate of return] in the normal range for an ROR regulated pipe… so… not sure how a cost of service regime (with roughly the same target ROR) would lower the NPV of the project

My argument is with the PBO report’s suggestion that after 20-years the existing shippers will not want to sign contracts in scenarios where Canada takes action on climate change. To the best of my knowledge their argument is based on a misunderstanding/ misinterpretation of the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) “Canada’s Energy Future 2020” report. I describe the general misunderstanding in my earlier blog post but will summarize here. In the CER report they include this graph:

The CER, in the production of their graph, made the editorial decision to insert pipelines into the graphic based on completion dates with the older pipelines on the bottom and the newer ones on the top. This graphical choice is not intended to indicate the rate at which various pipelines will be chosen to move product. It was simply an editorial choice in making the graph.

Many activists (and the PBO) appear to believe that if Canada acts on its climate commitments then based on this graph the TMX and Keystone XL will be the first to lose product. Alternatively, they may believe that if there is excess capacity in the overall transportation network then the excess capacity will be spread evenly across all means of oil transportation.

These assumptions are not correct. Should Canada achieve excess transportation capacity the reductions will come based on costs to transport the oil, the risks of oil transportation and markets served by the transportation medium rather than simply being spread evenly across all mechanisms. By looking at which markets are served by which pipelines we can establish who will lose their market share first if we end up with excess carry-out capacity. This is where the PBO report gets it particularly wrong about the TMX.

The TMX is the only route that terminates on the Pacific West Coast. As such. the TMX is the only pipeline that can effectively serve markets in California, Washington State, British Columbia and, of course, Asia.

Thus, the suggestion that shippers will suddenly decide, in 20 years, to not lock in supply on the only pipeline that services the Parkland Refinery in Burnaby or the BP refinery on the Puget Sound makes zero sense. Similarly, the heavy oil refineries in California will be looking for certainty in supplies. The suggestion that shippers will go 100% with the cost-of-service model, with all its uncertainties, simply makes no sense. Some shippers will continue to lock in their commitments because the Trans Mountain is the only way they can affordably get their product to these markets.

Thus, looking at Table 3.2 above we can eliminate the 100% cost-of-service columns and the 9.0% discount rate columns. By doing so we get rid of a lot of red columns and what we get is a NPV range from +2,300 to -1,800. The general trend seems to be about plus or minus $1 billion in NPV over the lifetime of the project.

But Blair, I hear some asking, doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t build the pipeline, it may have a net negative NPV?

My response is that even if the TMX ends up with a net negative NPV it would still be worth building because of the value it will generate for the economy. After all we don’t expect our other infrastructure projects to have a positive NPV, instead we look at whether they can increase productivity and grow the economy. We invest in infrastructure because it generates wealth.

This is the part of the PBO report the activists have carefully avoided. Section 4 of the PBO report describes both how the construction of the pipeline will impact real GDP and employment and more importantly will increase optionality. As the report notes:

Optionality refers to the availability of more pipeline export capacity to more downstream markets for Western Canadian oil producers. Optionality allows shippers more opportunities to maximize returns and reduce the netback disadvantage, reflected in the price differential between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Western Canadian Select (WCS)

The PBO later notes:

That analysis determined that a reduction in the WTI-WCS price differential of US$5 per barrel would, on average, increase nominal GDP by $6.0 billion annually over 2019 to 2023″.

and presents the following graph:

Look at that graph. In 2018 the WTI-WCS price differential was as high as $30/barrel.

If we assumed the Trans Mountain, Keystone and Line 3 reduced the differential by only $5 barrel that would be an increase in GDP of $6 billion. That $6 billion a year for every $5 reduction in differential is $120 billion in GDP over the first 20 years of operation of the pipeline. Recognize, this economic growth does not come at any additional GHG or environmental costs. We aren’t selling more product or being more efficient getting it out of the ground. This value simply derives from getting a better price for the same product. It is clean growth with no environmental downsides.

Even if the pipeline lost a billion in NPV it would more than pay for itself in the improvement in GDP and increases in government revenue. Put simply, that is why governments invest in infrastructure. By investing in critical infrastructure the government can generate wealth for the nation and the Trans Mountain looks likely to generate massive wealth to help pay for all the other services we rely on from Medicare to clean drinking water. So when West Coast Environmental Law argues that it is:

Shameful. The Canadian gov’t would rather sink $$Billions into #pipeline expansion than invest in basic infrastructure to deliver #drinkingwater to #Indigenous communities.

I would counter that by investing in wealth-generating infrastructure, like the TMX, the government will be able to generate the tax revenues to help it deliver safe drinking water to all its communities.

To conclude: as I have written repeatedly, the Trans Mountain will be a shipper of choice for decades to come because, unlike Keystone XL, it does not compete with the Enbridge system shipping to the US mid-west and Gulf Coast. As long as this is true then the PBO analysis makes it clear that the project will have a positive NPV. Moreover, not only will the Trans Mountain be profitable, but it will generate wealth by decreasing the WTI-WCS price differential which will grow the economy and generate more government income. While we cannot be sure by how much the TMX will reduce that differential, we can be certain that it will. In doing so, the TMX will almost certainly be profitable while simultaneously serving a critical role in generating GDP and government revenue. It is a win-win project.

Posted in Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Evaluating what the new Canada Energy Regulator report actually says about the viability of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

This week the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) presented its Canada’s Energy Future 2020 report and almost immediately the contents were misrepresented in the media by activists and pundits alike. In the Globe and Mail Gary Mason stated thatthe regulator made one thing abundantly clear: The pipeline era is over.” While Leadnow claimed that the CER says “there is no need for more tar sands pipelines”. Neither of these claims are true, nor are many of the similar claims made by organizations like West Coast Environmental Law, Stand.Earth or Dogwood.

The truth of the matter is that few of these activists have likely read in detail what the CER actually wrote in their report and even fewer will be sharing what the report actually says to their followers. This leaves it to people like me to relate what the analysis in the report means for the viability of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX). As I will detail below, the analysis makes it clear that the TMX remains on solid economic ground.

In the report, the CER presents two basic scenarios:

The Evolving Energy System Scenario (Evolving Scenario) considers the impact of continuing the historical trend of increasing global action on climate change throughout the projection period.

The Reference Energy System Scenario (Reference Scenario) provides an update to what has traditionally been the baseline projection in the Energy Futures series, the Reference Scenario  

What the report says is that under the Reference Scenario all the new pipelines in the development queue will be needed. This is shown by the blue line in the graph below. Planned transportation capacity will just be enough to cover planned production capacity, but that includes some pretty big provisos. The biggest is it assumes President-Elect Biden will not follow through on his promise to cancel the permits for Keystone XL. Admittedly election promises aren’t written in stone, but assuming that the new President will ignore an important election promise is not usually a safe bet. It also assumes that a significant amount of production will be carried on rails, something anyone seriously concerned about the environment agrees we want to avoid. But we really aren’t interested in the Reference Scenario at this point, rather what has got the headlines is the Evolving Scenario (the pink line).

As discussed above, it has been widely claimed by the activist community that under the Evolving Scenario the TMX will become a “white elephant” and is no longer economically viable. This is simply not consistent with what the report says nor what is understood about the global market for Alberta heavy oil.

As shown in the graph, under the Evolving Scenario (and in the absence of any new pipeline completions) all the existing transportation capacity will be maxed out by early 2025 with even oil-by-rail being unable to meet the anticipated demand. Put simply, absent some increase in pipeline capacity there will be serious shortfalls in transportation capacity with the ensuing need for some form of curtailment. As we all know a lack of carrying capacity costs the economy and drives down the price Alberta can get for its oil. The graph makes it absolutely clear, even under the Evolving Scenario either Line 3 or the TMX capacity will be needed just to reduce our dependence on oil-by-rail.

Let’s continue with the thought experiment of the Evolving Scenario and no new pipelines. Since transportation capacity will be maxed out, any stoppage on any existing pipeline or any issue with oil-by-rail will result in severe curtailment in a market where Alberta’s production will be needed (see my previous posts about shortages in the world market for heavy oil).

We also have to consider geopolitical considerations. Currently, Canada has no redundancy; almost no control over the pipeline system; and no contingency to deal with breakdowns. In all honesty, right now the Canadian market is dangerously dependent on the Enbridge pipeline system. As we recently discovered, a single state Governor has the potential to hamstring that pipeline system and unravel the Canadian oil transportation network. Moreover, since these decisions are being made outside of our jurisdictions, we don’t even have the power to force action through the courts. Better to have some options should an American politician decide to use Canadian oil as a political hobbyhorse.

Now let’s consider the most likely scenario: both Line 3 and the TMX are completed but KXL is blocked by the US President. What does that mean? Will there be chaos and anarchy? No, it means that the country will have a small amount of surplus capacity; will not need to rely so heavily on oil-by-rail; and won’t need all its infrastructure operating at 100% capacity 100% of the time. As anyone who has made plans knows, it is always better to have a bit of contingency than to be utterly dependent on everything working perfectly all the time. Having both Line 3 and the TMX online provides the ability to deal with ebbs and flows in production and reduces the need for oil-by-rail. That is a good thing.

Another misconception about the CER report comes from the way the graph was designed. As pointed out by Economist Kent Fellows the graph gives a wrong impression, by putting the new pipelines on the top (above the pink line), that Line 3 and the TMX will be the last to get oil if there is more carrying capacity than production. That is simply not what will actually happen. Transportation pipelines will be chosen based on contractual arrangements and which markets they serve. By looking at which markets are served by which pipelines we can establish who will lose their market share first if we end up with excess carry-out capacity. This is where the activists get it particularly wrong about the TMX.

As I describe in my earlier post, the world market is suffering from issues in the supply of heavy oil and the West Coast is severely short on transportation capacity for both heavy and light oil. Let’s look at the current pipeline network.

Where do all the existing pipelines go? Well except for Line 9 (east) and the TMX (west) all the rest go south to the US. So, given a lack of supply which direction would be most likely to be curtailed? Why south of course.

The Trans Mountain is the only player in the game going west. British Columbia, California, Washington, India, China…all can be served by the TMX and can’t be served effectively by any of the other options (except oil-by-rail over the Rockies). Sure you can get to Asia from the Texas Coast, it only takes a trip all the way down North America to the Gulf Coast and then a 10,000 nautical mile trip the long way around the world. This probably explains why 700,000 barrels/day of the 890,000 barrels/day of capacity on the TMX has already been committed. More of that capacity would have been reserved except the CER required that a portion of the capacity be left available for other shippers.

So will the TMX become a “white elephant” that sits empty if the total carrying capacity out of Alberta slightly exceeds Alberta’s production? Absolutely not. Rather, based on legally binding commitments, this pipeline will be at, or close to, capacity from the moment it becomes active. It will be one of the first pipelines filled and one of the last to lose oil.

Contrary to claims by activists, the CER Energy Futures Report does not cast doubt on the economic viability of the TMX nor do CER projections show the TMX is not needed if Canada Acts on climate. As I show above, even when Canada acts on climate the Trans Mountain system will continue to be a shipper of choice and will likely be one of the last pipelines to lose capacity as we migrate off fossil fuels for transportation. It is a strong project with strong financial prospects which probably explains why Indigenous groups are already offering to buy the pipeline even before the construction is complete. I don’t expect they would be doing that if it really was a “white elephant”.

Posted in Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Another day, another flawed CCPA report, this time about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

Yesterday, I was directed to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) about the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project. As I have written previously, every time I get a notification about one of their reports, I hope that it will present an evidence-based analysis consistent with the quality of the individuals I know work there. Sadly, they always manage to disappoint. I could fill an entire section of my blog with examples of their disappointing reports.

This new report was written by David Hughes, one of their policy analysts I have come across before and is titled: Reassessment of Need for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project Production forecasts, economics and environmental considerations. The report purports to “assess the latest data on the need for the TMX” but as I will show in this blog post, it does nothing of the sort. Much of the data used in the report is either woefully out-of-date or lacks the context necessary to be of any use in any evidence-based, decision-making process. Most importantly, the report obfuscates the entire point of the TMX which is to provide producers in Alberta with access to new markets for their production.

I started reading the report with open, but skeptical, eyes but it didn’t take long to recognize that I was going to need to scrutinize the document very carefully. An obvious misstatement set my fact-checker’s radar off. On page 15 the author writes:

Although rail is a more expensive option than pipelines, it has the flexibility to access markets not served by pipelines and is three times safer than pipelines in terms of the volume of oil spilled per ton-mile transported.18

This statement ran contrary to everything I knew about this topic so I consulted the footnote. It cited a Congressional Research Service report from 2014 titled: U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress. The footnote indicates the statistic is from Figure 3 of this report (reproduced below):

The claim was based on the last block depicting the information from 2002-2007. The author has chosen data that pre-dates the massive spike in rail transportation of crude oil in the last decade and pre-dates significant events like Gogamas, Galenas, Lac Megantic, the dozen or so other rail issues that didn’t make our local press and the Mosier derailment that came within feet of hitting the Columbia River. It also omits the years earlier where rail was not 3 times safer. How can that be described as assessing the latest data?

As my readers know, I have written extensively on the relative risks of pipelines versus oil-by-rail. We all know that a recent report indicated that the risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline. While many have challenged the precision of that statistic, there is no doubt that its analysis does not rely solely on data from the US between 2002 and 2007 while omitting everything before and after that limited time frame in Canada and the US. This dubious choice caused me to question the validity of every reference and data point used in the study. Once I started looking carefully more issues with this report started to emerge.

Consider Figure 4 that purports to present the “Existing and proposed Western Canada export takeaway capacity and domestic refinery consumption”. While it is hard to see the refining volume rises significantly. This is because

The refinery capacity in Alberta has also been increased by 79,000 barrels per day in 2025 and again in 2030, to reflect the probable addition of Phases 2 and 3, respectively, of the Sturgeon refinery.

Anyone familiar with the Sturgeon Refinery knows that it has been a financial boondoggle and that the consortium that owns the project has withdrawn their proposal to expand the refinery. Treating this capacity expansion as a given (as is done in this report) does not reflect reality.

As for the report’s analysis of markets, it is equally out-of-date. When discussing the Asian market for heavy oil it relies on data that is no longer relevant. As I discuss in my previous post “Understanding future demand for heavy oil – Why the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project is a good bet for Canada” Asian refinery owners have been frantically upgrading their refineries to process heavy oil. As I discuss in that post “Asian refineries can refine over 8 times what Line 2 of the TMX can supply to Westridge Marine Terminal for export”. I provide all the most recent numbers in my previous post.

Besides providing out-of-date information for Asian refining capacity, the CCPA report has a startling omission. It completely omits the American west coast as a market for Trans Mountain oil. The report appears to imply that the TMX is solely intended to serve the Asian market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point of the pipeline is to provide ready access to a marine port where the oil can obtain world market prices, and one of the places where that is going to happen is in California.

In case you don’t follow the US crude business there are some important things to understand. The US market is broken into Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADDs) and PADD 5 (the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii) is not interconnected to the rest of the US by pipelines. California and Alaska have historically supplied the lion’s share of the demand in PADD 5. What most don’t know is that California produces some of the highest GHG intensity fuel on the planet (even higher than oil sands crude) but that heavy oil is drying up. Alaskan oil is also drying up. This leaves much of PADD 5 with a supply shortage.

As a consequence, one of the most important markets for the TMX will be California which has a lot of heavy oil refining capacity and is losing its domestic supply of heavy oil. Currently, very little Alberta crude can get to California, but after the TMX it will more accessible. Now this is not some secret unknown to the activist community. Greenpeace recently did a big report on the topic. Yet somehow the CCPA report completely omits California from its analysis.

Another interesting omission occurs in the discussion about Maya crude (Mexico’s chemical twin to Alberta’s Western Canada Select). Maya is derived from the Cantarell and Ku Maloob Zaap oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. The nautical distance between the Port of Vera Cruz in Mexico to Shanghai China is almost 10,020 nautical miles. The two ports are almost as far apart as you can put two ports. This incredible distance results in high transportation costs. On the other hand, these Mexican ports are essentially next door to the US Gulf Coast refineries. So it isn’t a big surprise that Maya sells for a higher price for use in the Gulf Coast than it does for use in Asia. That would explain why today (October 30th, 2020 from OilPrice.com) Maya is selling for $38.41/barrel in the Gulf Coast while it is selling for $35.42/barrel to Asia. Western Canada Select, meanwhile, is selling for $26.57/barrel. Given that the two are chemical twins that difference of over $10/barrel is primarily due to Maya having access to a marine port.

Going back to the West Coast, the nautical distance from the Port of Vancouver to Shanghai is 5110 nautical miles. By halving the distance the price to transport the oil goes down and the price Albertan producers can get for it goes up. Remember earlier when I talked about all that crude going to California. The trip from Vancouver to San Francisco is only 812 nautical miles and the cost to ship a barrel of oil from Vancouver to San Francisco is only $4/barrel. Given that short trip (and low transportation costs) the Californians can outbid the Chinese for Alberta oil because their shipping costs are so much lower.

Now everything above is important but the real trick in this report is misdirection. The author spends almost half his text talking about how it may eventually be possible to transport all Alberta’s production, using rail and new pipelines, to the US mid-west. Thus, arguing that the TMX is unnecessary. But that ignores the entire point of the TMX. The TMX is intended to get Canada out of the current situation where Alberta can only sell its oil to one market and thus has no ability to shop its oil around to get the best price possible.

The author is correct that Alberta may well have lots of transportation capacity to PADD Regions 2, 3 and 4, in the future, but in doing so it highlights that Albertan producers do not have ready access to PADD Region 5 or the rest of the world for that matter. The entire purpose of the TMX is to address that critical bottleneck blocking Albertan access to the world oil markets where Albertan producers can get market prices for their production.

It is really hard to know what to say at this point. I have only scratched the surface on this report and already I have determined that it is not a useful resource for environmental decision-making. As I detail above, the report

  • relies on out-of-date data for heavy oil refining capacity in Asia,
  • assumes that the cancelled expansion of the Sturgeon refinery will pull away capacity from the TMX,
  • ignores the emerging California market for heavy oil,
  • relies on questionable data to discuss the risks of oil-by-rail,
  • omits the transportation costs of Maya to Asia, and
  • obfuscates the entire point of the TMX which is to provide producers in Alberta with access to new markets for their production.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Understanding future demand for heavy oil – Why the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project is a good bet for Canada

In the last couple weeks the campaign against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project has been turned up to 11. My social media feed is full of claims like: “100+ economists sent a letter to @JustinTrudeau confirming that #TMX pipeline is massive boondoggle putting billions of tax $$ at risk.” Needless to say, the letter was not signed by “100+ economists” unless you define “economists” to consist primarily of individuals with no credentials or practical experience in the academic field of Economics. Rather, it was signed by a handful of economists and a lot of anti-TMX activists.

One of the major arguments by the “economists” in their letter (and other activists like Tzeporah Berman) is that there will be no demand for Alberta’s oil in a post-pandemic world. More specifically, the letter argues “decline in world oil markets and the escalating construction costs have undermined the viability of TMX and put taxpayers’ money at risk“.

As I will explain in this blog post, the Canadian oil sands industry (producing heavy oil at low cost from facilities with low depletion rates) makes the TMX a good investment in a world with plateauing and/or decreasing oil demand.

Oil Field Decline and Depletion

To understand why oil sands are a good bet you must first understand the concept of oil field decline and depletion. Put in the simplest terms: oil fields don’t last forever. Each oil field has a finite supply of accessible crude and from the day they start pumping every field has a limited lifespan. Some oil fields (particularly the big Saudi fields) have huge supplies that have lasted for decades and will be there for decades to come. But those fields are the exception, not the rule. As Terry Etam explains:

Natural decline rates on petroleum wells/fields is a minimum of about 3 percent and, for new technology like shale fields, something more than twenty percent. Let’s be fairly conservative and say that global decline rates are 7 percent.

On a 100 million b/d base, that would mean that the world would need to add 7 million b/d of production after just one year to keep production flat. Over two years, the petroleum industry needs to add 13.5 million b/d to keep production flat at 100 million b/d.

Yes, you read that right, a shale well can lose 20% of its production in one year. In order to maintain production, at existing rates, new wells have to be drilled pretty much constantly and through the Covid period that has not been happening.

Meanwhile, on the international front, the majors and super-majors have significantly cut back on their exploration and development budgets and have put major projects on hold. What does this mean to oil sands producers?

Well contrary to the activist claims, it is good news for the Alberta oil sands. Unlike their competitors, oils sands projects have very low depletion rates with very low break-even points. As IHS Markit puts it:

Even in a low price scenario that sees upstream investment fall sharply, production from Canada’s oil sands does not. Output remains stable and companies would chip away at costs over time, experiencing more production gains by upgrading existing facilities. This scenario is a reminder about the unique nature of Canada’s oil sands. “The absence of meaningful [production] declines makes a future without oil sands growth difficult to see.” [emphasis mine]

As noted in that report, much of the existing oil sands production is profitable at prices over $25/barrel while CNRL recently reported their mining and upgrading operating costs declined to a record low of $17.74 barrel. In a world where the drop in supply is expected to exceed the drop in demand, existing oil sands projects, with their low depletion rates and low break-even costs, will be ideally situated to meet the world’s future oil needs, especially since the oil sands produce heavy crude.

On the Particular Value of Heavy Crude

You might ask why I emphasize the importance of “heavy crude” since the activists like to claim that heavy crude is inferior to light crude. That is a common misconception.

Heavy oil is neither better nor worse than light crude. They are distinct products that have similar, but not the same, markets. Heavy crude needs to be refined in specially designed and built high-conversion refineries. These high-conversion refineries include expensive cracking and coking units, designed to break down the longer and heavier hydrocarbons into the smaller units used in gasoline, kerosene and diesel.

The simpler light crude refineries, meanwhile, don’t typically have these cracking and coking units. Ironically, this can mean that the light crude refineries can’t handle the heavier components in the light crude oils and so these refineries end up producing more undesirable byproducts (like petroleum coke) per barrel of input.

What this means is that the heavy oil refineries produce more gasoline/diesel/kerosene per barrel of heavy crude oil than the light refineries do per barrel of light crude oil. As a bonus the complex heavy refineries produce a lot less waste petroleum coke per barrel which also reduces their costs.

This difference is called the “coking margin“. For the last couple decades the coking margin has exceeded the “crack spread” [the difference between the input costs and output value in a typical refinery]. As described in this document for the 10-year period between 1995 to 2005 the USGC Maya coking margin averaged $3.63 per barrel above the average of crack spread of $3.46 per barrel. That number has only increased in the intervening decades. That is why so many refinery owners have invested to increase the complexity of their refineries.

To explain the jargon, the Nelson Complexity Index is a measure of the sophistication of an oil refinery, where more complex refineries are able to produce more heavily refined, and valuable, products from a barrel of oil.

Having invested heavily into building these complex refineries, the owners will pay to get the heavy oil that optimizes their returns. This is why the light-heavy price differential has mostly disappeared in the last couple years.

As for the supply side of the equation, for decades Venezuela was a major exporter of heavy oil but thanks to bad government and lack of investment Venezuela has dropped from exporting close to 3 million barrels a day in 2000 to nearly zero in 2020. That 3 million barrels a day is almost 6 times the volume that can be moved in Line 2 of the TMX. Now let’s look at what has happened on the demand side for heavy crude.

Asian Refining Capacity

One of the most bizarre recent narratives presented by the activist community is that there is no market for diluted bitumen in Asia and that Asian refineries can’t refine dilbit. This is entirely untrue.

Historically the American Gulf coast refineries have been the pinnacle of refining complexity. This is no longer the case. As presented in this document these days Asian refineries are approaching the complexity of the US fleet.

As Reuters recently reported:

Many of the region’s refineries are new and are optimized to process heavy and sour crudes.

So, contrary to what the activists have to say Asia has a lot of refineries that can refine heavy oil. Want some numbers? According to GlobalData:

The global refinery fluid catalytic cracking units (FCCU) capacity increased from 19,926 mbd [thousand barrels a day] in 2014 to 21,050 mbd in 2019 at an AAGR of 1.1 percent. It is expected to increase from 21,050 mbd in 2019 to 22,240 mbd in 2024 at an AAGR of 1.1 percent. United States, China, India, Japan and Russia are the top five countries in the world accounting for 61.2 percent of total FCCU capacity in 2019.

GlobalData’s report reveals

Asia’s FCCU capacity is expected to increase by 542 mbdfrom 8,385 mbd in 2020 to about 8,927 mbd in 2024. Out of the Asia’s total capacity additions, 151.2 mbd is likely to come from the expansion of active projects while the remaining 391 mbd is expected to come from new-build planned projects.

Finally as described in another report:

GlobalData’s report,‘Global Refinery Coking Units Outlook to 2024 – Capacity and Capital Expenditure Outlook with Details of All Operating and Planned Coking Units’, reveals that Asia’s coking capacity is expected to increase by 374 mbd, from 3,489 mbd in 2020 to about 3,863 mbd by 2024

Look at those numbers. Asian refineries can refine over 8 times what Line 2 of the TMX can supply to Westridge Marine Terminal for export.


Let’s summarize the case for the TMX: currently the crude oil market is expected to plateau and then drop. However that drop is not expected to be as steep as the ongoing drop in supply associated with global oil field decline and depletion. Historically, this decline and depletion of existing oil fields has been counteracted by increased investment in exploration and development in the upstream sector. Except most of the majors and super-majors have significantly decreased their investment in exploration and development of new oil fields. The result will be a global decrease in access to new oil fields and in particular to heavy oil. Meanwhile, global refinery owners have spent billions of dollars upgrading their facilities…facilities optimized to refine that increasingly hard to get heavy oil.

Into this world of demand outstripping supply for heavy oil comes the TMX. The TMX will allow Alberta to ship highly desired heavy oil from oil sands facilities that have very low depletion rates, with very low break-even points, to motivated buyers with custom-made facilities designed specifically to refine those heavy crudes. This represents an ideal scenario for Canadian producers. They will have motivated buyers seeking a steady supply of highly-prized oil located where transportation costs to Asia will be minimized, all during a period when global demand for heavy crude is expected to increase. Even in a decreasing market, the strong demand for heavy oil will keep Canadian oil at the top of the order sheet. So much for that letter by those “economists”.

Posted in Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Thoughts on living a public life with a stutter and on the value of early and intensive speech therapy

I have always envied people who can simply talk without it being a mental workout. As an advocate for evidence-based, environmental decision-making I often get asked to appear on television or the radio to speak on scientific topics of interest. Each time I do, I marvel at how easily professional communicators speak. I have never known that skill/gift as I lived my entire life with a speech impediment. I am a stutterer.

Thankfully (as I will discuss in this post), intense speech therapy as a child makes my stutter almost invisible most of the time. It only asserts itself when I am caught unawares, am under stress, or have had a bit too much to drink.

As a very young child, I was taught a series of tools to adapt. The tools include being careful with my word choice, avoiding words with multiple consonants too close together, singing words, and sticking to rehearsed scripts.

Practice and repetition also really help. I will typically practice in my head what I am going to say before I say anything. Going over how I will get from the start to the end of a thought before saying it out loud allows me to avoid the traps. The only problem with this approach is with important topics I can try so many variations in my head that I can sometime think I have said something that I have not. My wife laughs that I have most of our important conversations in my head, and forget to share them with my family.

As a child, besides the stutter, I could not make a number of sounds. The worst being the letter R, which I pronounced as a W except in certain sequences. The most humorous (to the older kids at school) was that I pronounced the letters “TR” as an “F”. This lead to a famous joke of telling Blair to say “fire truck” to an adult to see their response.

You may ask why I am writing this blog post and the answer is: because I want to take advantage of current affairs to push for more early-childhood services for kids with speech impediments. Having read the brave discussion of the topic by Joe Biden in The Atlantic (What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say) and seeing the Democratic Party highlighting Joe Biden and Brayden Harrington’s speech issues during their convention; I realize that it is time that people with speech impediments forced themselves back into the conversation.

We must speak out about funding for early intervention and restoring/adding funding for speech therapy in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need to let themselves be heard.

I grew up in what I now understand was the golden age of speech therapy in schools. I was identified in Grade 1 as needing help and for the next couple years got regular and intensive help from a school-supplied speech therapist until I could roll my R’s and completely assimilate the tools necessary to hide my other speech challenges. I can’t count the number of times I was required to say “Ricochet-rabbit runs rapidly down the road” but every time I got it perfect I got a penny.

Even with all the tools I learned, anyone listening to me will get the impression that something is not quite right. I speak in a halting pace and will stop frequently as I struggle to get words out. This is not because I don’t know what I am trying to say, but because I cannot get the words out. That delay is me trying to find a different way to get ideas out of my head without access to the words I need, but can’t say.

When people say “you should think about what you are going to say before you say it“; It really frustrates me. In order to speak semi-fluently I literally have to think of every word I want to utter before I say it out loud. For me a casual discussion involves a constant effort of thinking about every word before it comes out of my mouth. I simply don’t have the ability to speak quickly and easily like the radio hosts I envy.

Interestingly, one of the parent’s on my daughter’s soccer team is a speech‐language pathologist (SLP). During my first discussion with her at the soccer field she immediately recognized how I was using all the tools she taught in her practice to speak as fluently as I possibly can. As someone who only treats children, she noted how satisfying it was to see that the lessons she teaches being implemented by an adult.

As someone with a speech impediment, I have often felt that my voice was not heard in conversations because I don’t get to the point fast enough. I know my lack of fluency can be tough on people I’m talking to but that doesn’t make my input valueless. My wife and kids are quite used to it and will fill in the gaps at home but sometimes all I need is for a bit a patience in an impatient world.

Earlier in my career, I had a supervisor who simply did not understand the concept of a speech impediment being a real thing. Even after my condition was explained to him, he still reprimanded me for coming to meetings “unprepared” if I spoke in a slow-halting pace, or stopped in mid-sentence before finishing a sentence. This supervisor included comments to this effect in my performance reviews and while I am gladly rid of this man from my life, I can’t help but wonder if his comments delayed my professional development or set back my career.

You might see a trend in this post. It is the importance of intensive therapy as early as is practicable and with giving those with a speech impediment the time they need to express themselves. Unfortunately, our school system no longer places the emphasis it once did on this topic. The hours of intensive one-to-one therapy I received as a child would never be available today. Many kids age-out before they can jump through all the hoops necessary to even qualify for the therapy they need to become fluent. As Speech and Hearing BC puts it:

Speech and language skills influence the trajectory of a child for a lifetime. These skills also link to cognitive development, social skills, and success in academic learning. At least one in ten preschoolers need to see a speech‐language pathologist (SLP) for support in developing age‐appropriate communication skills. It is not unusual for children to be left waiting for months or years to see a publicly funded SLP in BC, due to individual SLP caseloads of over 80 children. Some children will not have access to a SLP before kindergarten due to wait lists

The recommended caseload for one full time equivalent (FTE) SLP is 25‐40 children. Assuming the maximum caseload of 40 children and a prevalence rate of 10% of preschoolers requiring SLP services, BC would require 552 full‐time SLPs to address the estimated need, significantly more than the current 165.

More problematically, outside of the school environment BC’s basic Medical Services Plan does not cover the cost of private speech, language, or swallowing services. Talk about creating an uneven playing field. Making less well-off families choose between speech therapy and paying for other family needs is simply not fair.

Kids with speech issues who are not treated early will lose out for the rest of their lives and if they can’t get the services early in their lives (when it is covered by the school system) they may never be able to afford the treatment they require to develop the skills they will need to succeed over their lifetimes.

From a public purse perspective, getting these kids intervention when they are young will pay dividends over that child’s lifetime. Reducing truancy, better performance and fewer disciplinary problems through their scholastic careers are all observed outcomes of early intervention. I won’t go into what a difference it will make to their quality-of-life both through their school years and in their lives after school. To be clear here, I am not asking our government to break the bank, but directed funding to increase our per capita number of SLPs to a national average would be a great start. Funding speech therapy for young people through medicare would be another great change to make up for all those who got missed by the school system would be great as well.

I can’t say it enough, we need to increase funding for early and intensive intervention for speech impediments in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of giving kids the tools the need and respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need, to let themselves be heard.

Author’s note

A lot of people I have known a long time have commented that they never realized I had this challenge….and that is the ultimate point of this post…if you give a child early intervention for as little as few hours a week for a couple years you can get a child who can pass as normal which means they don’t get picked on and they get a chance to thrive.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Revisiting activist myths about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – or Why Climate leaders may sometimes need to build pipelines

Activists are trying to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) back in the news. On my social media feed I first saw Dr. Tim Takaro hanging in a tree then watched him as he was replaced by YouTuber Kutis Baute. Meanwhile, I regularly hear activists repeating their simplistic mantra: “climate leaders don’t build pipelines”.

The goal of this blog is to advance evidence-based, environmental decision-making and the Trans Mountain is a particular interest of mine. In this post, I want to revisit some of the faulty arguments made by the opponents of the TMX. In doing I hope to explain why sometimes climate leaders may need to build pipelines.

Myth: we are moving away from fossil fuels so we shouldn’t build any fossil fuel infrastructure

This is a common refrain that is completely misguided since it ignores the timeline to achieve a fossil fuel-free future. Let’s consider a simple analogy. Imagine you plan on retiring in 10-15 years. Would now be a good time to stop upgrading your work computer or to pack up your office? Would you say, “better not buy more coffee for the coffee-maker, I’m retiring in 2035”? I’m guessing you would instead choose to time your last computer upgrade to let you reach your retirement year.

Some activists have argued that the fossil-fuel era could be over in as little as 10 years, but in my mind this argument does not even rise to the level of laughable. If we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented per cent of our national gross domestic product to the task, we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. In the meantime we will need infrastructure to safely move that product.

Myth: we should be building renewables not fossil fuel infrastructure.

This isn’t a myth so much as a false dichotomy. Renewables produce electricity, they don’t compete with liquid fuels and heavy crude for most of their uses in the short-, middle- and long-terms. Let’s look at each in turn:

Alternatives to fossil fuels – short-term

In the short term fossil fuels are absolutely essential. As I detailed in a previous post, in BC fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all energy use. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). I’m sure someone is going to say: “what about electric vehicles”? In 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrids, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.

Alternatives to fossil fuels – middle-term

In the middle-term, there are significant uses of fossil fuels for which alternatives simply won’t be available soon enough. Here is an paper in Science that identifies the uses for which alternative don’t currently exist. Let’s look at some critical uses one-by-one:

Transport trucks: at this time there are no electric transport trucks for long-haul routes. Admittedly Mercedes Benz is testing a potential electric transport truck but that truck currently has a maximum range of 200 km. Moreover, that is a single prototype. If you took the current generation of transport trucks off the road entirely, the store shelves would go bare in days.

Freight trains: Similarly there aren’t any electric freight trains that can operate across the Canadian Rockies (ref). So absent fossil fuels there won’t be any trains to transport food or necessities from the dockyards and farms to the rail yards either.

Container ships and electric cargo planes: There are some suggestions that a new generation of container ships could be designed to operate using some form of hybrid electrical/sail/biodeisel but that is still on the drawing board and we don’t even have a prototype out there for fossil fuel-free cargo aircraft.

Polyacrylonitrile for renewables: One of the most important components for renewable energy technologies is carbon fiber and carbon fiber is made from oil. Research is underway to use biomass to make carbon fiber but that may represent a false choice from a climate perspective. We already know that biomass has its own greenhouse gas issues not to mention the land use concerns of converting food to produce monomers for industry.

Alternatives to fossil fuels – long-term

In the long-term there are simply no alternatives for fossil fuels for petrochemical, pharmaceutical and road uses. The special advantage of petrochemicals is that they provide us with the benefits of millions of years of Mother Nature’s synthetic organic chemistry expertise combined with the input of millions of years of solar energy all captured in the compounds themselves. Petrochemicals represent a treasure trove of stored chemical energy that simply cannot be replaced given our current scientific knowledge and energy systems. So yes, fossil fuels are made of something special and at this point in our technological progress they are simply irreplaceable.

Given we have a long-term need for fossil fuels. Let’s address the specific myths about the TMX?

Myth: the TMX is a carbon bomb that will dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

This is the biggest myth pushed by activists and is simply not true. The TMX won’t increase the amount of oil production in Alberta. It will simply move the existing production in a safer way. Activists keep making this claim but do so by counting the oil moved in the TMX as if it were new production. It is not.

As detailed by the National Research Council, the estimated rail loading capacity out of western Canada in 2018 was approximately 2.8 million barrels per day and shipments of crude oil by rail more than doubled in 2018 from 146 000 bbl/d in January 2018, to 354 000 bbl/d in December 2018. Any production that doesn’t go by pipeline will simply move by rail at a much higher cost in greenhouse gas emissions. Sure there was a drop during the pandemic but as the global economy returns to normal so will demand.

On the American side of the border just three (Tacoma, Anacortes, or Ferndale) of the region’s six refineries moved over 156,800 bbl/d by rail in 2017 and every indicator is that the volume will be increasing absent TMX. These trains are carrying explosive Bakken crude through some of the most densely populated parts of the Pacific Northwest and along the sides of some of the West Coast’s most important salmon rivers. The TMX can help reduce that volume.

Rail spill risk

We all know that risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline and more of the rail route is along the river sides than is the pipeline. Many activists complain about the sourcing of the 4.5 times stat so let’s go to Citylab and the Sightline Institute, both of which warn about the increase in risk of oil spills associated with this increase in oil volumes by rail. There will be more oil-by-rail spills and because our rail lines run along river sides we will have far more risk to salmon habitat, the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs), and the Salish Sea.

Tankers in the Salish Sea

Some have argued the TMX poses a special risk to the Salish Sea. As described in a previous post, if the TMX doesn’t get completed, the refineries in the Puget Sound will still need over 645,000 bbl/d of crude oil. Currently Cherry Point refinery alone sees 500+ tankers a year and Toresco (a committed shipper on the TMX) has said they want to add 120 tankers a year to their Andeavor facility to make up for an absence of supply. Meanwhile, Westridge Terminal will still be sending out a few tankers a month. So in the end we will still see 700+ tankers a year coming in and out of the Salish Sea with 620+ of them running the narrower and much more dangerous Rosario Strait.

Spill risks in the Salish Sea

I have written in detail about the relative risks associated with the project to the Salish Sea. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. It will put more tankers going through narrower waters with less support from escort tugs. That is a formula for increased risk.

The threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales

I wrote about this in a previous post. If you look at the entire Salish Sea, and not simply the Canadian side of the border, then you realize that the TMX will likely decrease the risks to the SRKWs not increase those risks. If the TMX fails, foreign-flagged ships with lower safety standards will be coming in to the same waters, running through narrower straits while not following the slower speeds recommended by DFO to reduce ship noise. It will be more dangerous and louder for the SRKWs. Meanwhile, more oil-by-rail along the Columbia Gorge puts the whales’ winter feeding grounds at risk. All it takes is one spill in the Columbia River to destroy the SRKWs’ winter feeding grounds.

Funding the Transition off fossil fuels

Put simply, the costs to get off fossil fuels will be enormous. To fund that transition needs a healthy Canadian economy and that includes a healthy oil industry in Alberta. As a Canadian I will point out again that Canadian oil helps support Canadian jobs and Canadian institutions, and provides the funds to pay for our education and medical systems while subsidizing transfer payments.

I want the funds generated by Canadian oil to help fund our Canadian transition away from fossil fuels. I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to bomb his neighbour.

I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press, and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.


To summarize all my points above: the TMX is not a pipeline that will increase oil production in Alberta, rather it will move existing production in the safest, least environmentally harmful manner (via pipeline). Blocking the TMX is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, rather it will redirect the crude to less safe means of transport while simultaneously reducing our economic ability to fight climate change. Building the TMX will not increase marine risks, it will simply change the risks and in some cases it will reduce the risks. One might say if they cancel the TMX we will end up with the worst of both worlds, a greater risk to the environment and less financial ability to finance the fight against climate change.

The truth of the matter is that real environmental leaders look at our needs in the short-, middle-, and long-term and build infrastructure to address all three. Sometimes that means building fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines. Thus, sometimes this means that climate leaders will need to build pipelines.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Renewable Energy, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

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.

Posted in Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Chemist looks at a major activist study about the Trans Mountain Pipeline Project and finds a hot mess

It is construction time again on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) and the activists are out in force. Interestingly, I saw that Dr. Tim Takaro was back in the news. This time he is up in a tree to try and stop the the building of the pipeline. While Dr. Takaro is variously described in the media as a “Vancouver Physician” or an “SFU Professor“, in my mind he will always be “Dr Butadiene”.

The reason I think of him as Dr. Butadiene is a report he submitted to the Canada Energy Regulator (the CER formerly the National Energy Board or NEB) during the TMX consultation process. The report was: Major Human Health Impacts of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (by Takaro et al., 2015). I use this report as an object lesson on why it is recommended that you consult a chemist before you present a paper involving significant chemistry content. I do so because this report represents a case study in how a lack of chemical knowledge can metastasize to result in bad public policy recommendations.

Now to be absolutely clear, Dr. Takaro is indeed an expert in Occupational & Environmental Health. Just look at his Curriculum Vitae. No seriously, look at that document he submitted to the CER. It has 51 pages. But if you look carefully you will notice the keywords that are missing in that C.V. There are zero instances of keywords like: “hydrocarbons” “gasoline” or “crude oil”. It begs the question, what specific expertise did he bring to the table when he decided to accept the job of writing a regulatory submission on the topic of the toxicity of diluted bitumen? As I will show in the following text, he clearly brought very little.

For the TL;DR crowd – as I will detail below the report is rife with out-of-date references and bad information. It gets the concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen so wrong as to make its arguments about benzene invalid and more amusingly, it gets the chemistry of diluted bitumen so wrong that most of the report is simply moot. Almost half the text is dedicated to a component (1,3-Butadiene) that isn’t found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen [hence the moniker Dr. Butadiene].

Now that I have provided that spoiler, let’s start with the stuff they get almost right. The report does establish that benzene is found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen. The problem is they get the concentrations (and thus the relative risk) all wrong. Here is what the report says:

Benzene is an important component of gasoline (1‐4%) due to its high octane number, which gives the high compression rates for the fuel to prevent knocking (Kirk et al, 1983). On average, benzene content in premium and regular unleaded gasoline is 2.15% by weight or 1.76% by volume (Madé, 1991). The quantities of benzene in diluent are similar.

Here is the issue: in a scientific document you really shouldn’t be relying on references from the 1980’s unless you are absolutely sure that nothing has changed in the intervening decades. This report didn’t do that.

Unfortunately for Dr. Takaro et al., in 1997 the Benzene in Gasoline Regulations came into force. These Regulations restricted the amount of benzene allowed in gasoline in Canada. What this means is the numbers provided by from the 1983 and 1991 references are wrong and should not have be cited in this report. Since 1997, it has been illegal to sell gasoline with concentrations of benzene over 1.5% by volume so the range of 1-4% provided is simply not valid.

What I find particularly odd is that Dr. Takaro et al. appear to know this since they later cite that very regulation:

Government of Canada regulations on benzene have prohibited the sale of gasoline with more than 1.5% benzene by volume (Environment Canada, 2014) [where the EC report is actually the Gasoline in Benzene regulation].

Can someone explain to me how they can, in one paragraph, claim that benzene makes up 1.76% by volume in premium gasoline then follow that statement by saying it can’t legally be sold at more than 1.5% by weight?

Considering that this submission is supposedly about diluted bitumen, it seems odd that Dr. Takaro et al., fail completely to investigate or report on the actual concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen, instead falsely claiming that diluent has similar concentrations to gasoline.

The truth of the matter is that diluted bitumen has some of the lowest benzene concentrations of all crude oils. The five year average for benzene concentration in Cold Lake Blend is 0.23% +/- 0.03 %. As presented above, in the report they claim that benzene could be as high as 4% in fuels but in diluted bitumen it is over an order of magnitude lower than the concentration presented.

From a chemical perspective this difference is critical. Benzene vapours are generated by all sorts or activities in our modern urban environments and given the negligible benzene concentrations in diluted bitumen, and the design of our pipeline systems, fugitive benzene emissions from these systems would not be detectable. These inconvenient facts totally undermine the entire argument presented in the report.

Now if Dr Takaro et al., were only wrong about benzene then the report might be have been salvageable but the benzene problem isn’t even the biggest issue with this report. As I hinted earlier, the larger issue is the section on 1,3-Butadiene. You see Dr Takaro et al., appear to have missed the really minor point that 1,3-Butadiene is not a detectable component in diluted bitumen. Yes you read that right, half of this report discusses all the human risks posed by the pipeline from emissions of 1.3-Butadiene but 1,3-Butadiene isn’t a detectable component in diluted bitumen.

But you don’t have to trust me on that claim. Pull out your copies of the three primary references used by the activists on the composition of diluted bitumen. Here’s Environment Canada’s technical report:

Properties, Composition and Marine Spill Behaviour, Fate and Transport of Two Diluted Bitumen Products from the Canadian Oil Sands.

Here is the National Academies of Science (NAS) report:

Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines: A Comparative Study of Environmental Fate, Effects, and Response (2016)

And finally here is the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report:

The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments (2015)

A search of the three documents won’t even find the the word “1,3-Butadiene”. So one might ask, where did Dr. Takaro et al., get their reference to 1,3-Butadiene in crude oil? Reading the report we find this line:

Anthropogenic sources (i.e., due to human activity) of concern for human exposure to butadiene include the following (Hughes et al, 2001):
– fugitive and combustion emissions from pipelines, pump stations, and storage terminals, during both construction and operations.

Now here is the problem for this report, when you go to that reference (Hughes et al., 1,3-Butadiene: Human Health Aspects) it includes no such claim. A simple text search finds zero references to the words “pipelines”, “pump stations” or “storage terminals”. In the Hughes report we are informed that 1,3-butadiene is sourced from incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons (as vehicle exhaust or from forest fires) or as an emission from a number of industrial processes. The report NEVER SAYS it is found in fugitive emissions from pipelines, pump stations or storage terminals. It doesn’t say that because that is simply not true. In order to be in fugitive emissions it would have to be observed in detectable concentrations in the source material and as the reports above make clear 1,3-Butdiene is not found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen.

Admittedly the Hughes report does include a proviso that

As well, very low levels of butadiene itself may be present in gasoline and in liquefied petroleum gas.

and later they write:

Based on data in NPRI, it was estimated that the total release of butadiene from fuel distribution in 1994 was 24 tonnes (Environment Canada, 1996a), although gasoline and diesel fuel contain little or no butadiene (US EPA, 1989).

Remember earlier when I mentioned that it is imperative that you check old sources to make sure they are current. Well here is another example of the importance of that rule.

Historically there was a lot of confusion about the presence of 1,3-Butadiene in fuel mixtures. In 1996 they cleared up the confusion. As detailed in the article (1,3-Butadiene in Gasoline: An Analytical Confusion by Rolf et al., 1996) the original claim that 1,3-Butadiene was in gasoline was based on a misinterpreted chemical analysis. This explains why the EPA does not include any petroleum sources of 1,3-Butadiene (outside of combustion) in their report on the topic. Rather the EPA says this:

Levels of butadiene in gasoline and diesel fuel are expected to be insignificant because butadiene tends to readily form a varnish that can be harmful to engines; therefore, refiners try to minimize the butadiene content. As a result, it was assumed that butadiene is not present in evaporative, refueling, or resting emissions.

Let’s summarize our findings about the Takaro et al., report. A report that has been cited repeatedly by activists and which is cited in over a dozen regulatory documents submitted to the Canada Energy Regulator:

  • almost half of the report’s contents are inapplicable as they address 1,3-Butadiene which is not even found in diluted bitumen; and
  • the remainder regarding benzene is predicated on a massive misstatement of the absolute concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen. That massive overstatement implies that benzene will be observed in detectable concentrations in the fugitive emissions from the TMX system, when benzene is barely detectable in diluted bitumen samples and the emissions in urban settings would not be detectable given the elevated background concentration of benzene in our urban environments.

Put another way, the Takaro et al., report 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.

Posted in Chemistry and Toxicology, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Fact-checking the Wilderness Committee narrative about the recent oil spill at the Trans Mountain Sumas Pump Station

Last weekend the Trans Mountain Pipeline had a spill at its Sumas Pump Station in Abbotsford. According to Trans Mountain the

Initial estimates are that 150-190 cubic metres (940-1195 barrels) of light crude was released and was fully contained on Trans Mountain property.

The release is related to a fitting on a small diameter (1”) piece of pipe connected to the mainline. No construction or Expansion Project activity was  underway at the pump station. The incident was identified when an alarm was received at Trans Mountain’s control centre. The pipeline was immediately shut down and crews arrived at the site within an hour of shutdown.

Here are some photos taken by Trans Mountain immediately after the spill, and shared with the media.

For those unaware of how these facilities are designed, the area where the spill occurred is designed to keep spills nearby. It is at a lower grade than the surrounding area, is gravel and asphalt-covered, and surrounded by berms. From the photos it is clear that the vast majority of the spill was contained to a graveled containment area. Trans Mountain has indicated that they have recovered most of the liquids but soil impacts remain and will need to be cleaned up.

Further investigation, after the initial reports, indicated that some oily water had escaped the initial containment and had been released into the adjacent field, which is owned by Trans Mountain. The field is often used by neighbours for grazing their cattle. This field is understood to be home to the monitoring well network used for ongoing monitoring of groundwater conditions near their facility.

Our good friends at the Wilderness Committee presented a press release including the photo below which they distributed to the media for general use.

Looking carefully, one can see four oil spill booms in the ditch leading from the water discharge point. Two are fully soaked and two are partially affected. This is consistent with a release of oily water, likely from the facility’s oil/water separator before it was shut down. What is not visible is a line of spill pads that would be emplaced if there was a major spill to be cleaned up.

A couple days later the Wilderness Committee prepared a mini-video on the spill:

Immediately following the spill the Wilderness Committee’s point man on this topic Peter McCartney (the gentleman who narrates the video known by his Twitter name @Climate_Pete) made it into the newscasts making clearly incorrect claims, like that it was lucky the spill was sweet crude because had it been bitumen it would have been much harder to clean up.

In this blog post I want to fact-check the Wilderness Committee response to this spill as, in my opinion, it shows a clear pattern of misinformation and simple ignorance about this topic.

The weird part about the misinformation is some of the things they have stated are obviously wrong. Less than ten seconds into the video Pete claims “Trans Mountain has spilled 150,000 to 190,000 L of crude into the local ecology.” In the press release he put it: “We’re talking about a major oil spill in a waterlogged field that sits above the Sumas aquifer,” 

Except we know this to be categorically false. As presented in the photos, the spill was mostly controlled in a containment area. 150,000 Liters did not reach “the local ecology“. There was no “major oil spill in a waterlogged field“.

In the video, Pete then goes into a brief discussion about hydrology, which, as I will detail later, is simply wrong. To summarize, the shallow subsurface in this area (where the spill would migrate) is separated from the local aquifer by a layer of silty-clay. Pete doesn’t appear to understand hydrology even as he opines on the subject on various media platforms.

Pete then goes on to say (at around 48 seconds) that there have been 4 spills in the last 15 years in the territory. Except that is not true either. To support this claim he flashes this list of spills from the Trans Mountain web site.

Since the view is not terribly clear I went to the original source and pulled out the page here.

Looking carefully, the dates he has highlighted are from 2005, 2002, 1997 and 1994. Now unless Pete uses a different sort of calendar than me, 1994 is not within 15 years of 2020. Moreover, that spill from 2005 was actually at the Sumas Tank Farm which is several kilometers away, up a mountain from the current spill. From a hydrological perspective it could be on another planet since it is in a different aquifer (more on that later) and is hydraulically separated from that aquifer by hundred of meters of consolidated bedrock.

The records Pete presents show that the last spill at the Sumas Pump Station was 9.4 barrels of oil in 2002. The only other spills at this facility were in 1997 (28.3 barrels) and 1994 (4.8 barrels). For a pipeline that has operated since 1961 that is a pretty decent record. That is four spills since 1961 and absolutely does not represent 4 spills in 15 years.

Besides the erroneous statements, in the video, and in the press release, Pete makes a number of over-the-top claims:

  • this is a disaster
  • the extreme risks to local ecosystems
  • a catastrophic spill
  • a catastrophic oil spill in slow-motion

You can usually tell the difference between an activist and an informed observer by looking at how they approach a topic like this. Over-the-top rhetoric based on superficial or a detailed assessment of the facts is the activist approach. My responses tend towards the detailed assessment of the facts.

The first thing I thought to do was to try to understand what the subsurface looks like in the vicinity of the spill; as that would indicate the level of risk posed by this spill. This being BC we have lots of great resources to do just that.

To get an understanding of the area the first step would be to consult the BC Water Resources Atlas. It provides details of all the local water wells and information about the local aquifer. A search of the Atlas identifies a well in the Trans Mountain-owned field next to the facility that was drilled in 1957 (before the pipeline was completed). When we search the well record for this well we see that the stratigraphy in the area consists of almost 19 feet (5.8 m) of silty clay overlaying a sand and gravel water-bearing layer.

This information is incredibly useful to understand spill behaviour. Silty clay serves as a pretty effective barrier to the vertical migration of spills. In technical language, it forms a confining layer that prevents, or limits, the migration of both groundwater (and any spill) to the useful water-bearing layer (located according to the well record at “19 to 26 feet” (5.8 m to 7.9 m).

The Water Resource Atlas also provides information about the local aquifer, including the Aquifer 21 summary and the Aquifer fact sheet.

Look at that, the Sumas Prairie Aquifer is not hydraulically linked to the aquifer under Sumas Mountain. This is not surprising as the Sumas River would be where that aquifer drained.

These documents indicate that the groundwater surface in the Sumas Prairie Aquifer is at about 2-3 meters below the ground surface (mbgs) and that typical wells in the aquifer draw from around 9 mbgs. This is consistent with what the well log told us and is pretty good news so far. There is almost 6 m of protective silty clay between the surface spill and the aquifer and about 4 meters of that silty clay is water-bearing (but not capable of being used for drinking water).

The next thing to consider is how a spill in this material will be expected to move. For the next little bit I need to get a bit wonky…feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.

The first thing we know is that oil is a hydrophobic liquid with a specific gravity less than 1. That means any spill will attempt to migrate vertically through the vadose zone until it reaches the groundwater surface and then because it is both hydrophobic and less dense than water, will float along the groundwater surface before migrating laterally on that surface until it reaches a water body or naturally degrades.

A silty clay has a hydraulic conductivity in the 10-9 m/s range. That means it is really hard for liquids to flow through silty clay. Even more so if you are a hydrophobic liquid as that material will preferentially adhere to silt and clay particles.

The local hydraulic gradient is defined by the topography. As we know the Sumas Prairie is as flat as a pool table. It has a topographic change of less than 1 m per km (or less than 0.001 m/m). Combining these two facts generates a Darcy Velocity of 1 x 10-12 m/yr. Now when we incorporate the effective porosity of a silt and clay (0.10) we get an Effective Linear velocity of the groundwater in the area of 1 x 10-11 m/yr. This generates a 50 year travel distance of 0.02 m (20 centimeters).

A reminder, this calculation is simply the rate at which groundwater will move through this silty clay. A hydrocarbon plume, being hydrophobic, will have a high retardation factor (yes that is a technical term derived from the French word “retarder”) so will travel at a substantially slower rate than the associated groundwater. Given the nature of the aquifer, there is no reason to believe there would be a vertical gradient so the spill would not be expected to dive. The absence of any large water wells nearby means there are no anthropogenic driving forces involved either.

Okay wonky part done for a bit.

For those of you less interested in the details above, what the former paragraphs explain is that absent an outside driving force, a surface oil spill in the field will not get to the deeper drinking water aquifer. Rather, it will get caught up in the silty clay. That oil which eventually migrates to the groundwater surface (2 meters through virtually impermeable silty clay) will then migrate away from the spill at the stately rate of about 20 centimetres every 50 years on top of the groundwater and separated from the drinking water aquifer by 4 meters of silty clay.

From a clean-up perspective this is about as best a case as possible. To clean up the spill you just need to remove the top few centimetres (to a half meter or so) of impacted silty-clay and ship it away to a facility designed to treat the material.

Admittedly, the process will take time and will cost a bit of money (shipping and treating impacted soil can be expensive) but given the rate that plume would be moving they have a bit of time to deal with the problem.

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Any spill poses a risk. In a different location, with different subsurface conditions, a spill of this kind could indeed be a “disaster”. But the Wilderness Committee is not talking about another spill, somewhere else. It is talking about the June 13 spill at the Sumas Pump Station.

The Wilderness Committee representative, in the press, has repeatedly over-stated the volume of oil that escaped containment, has misrepresented the number of spills that have happened in this area and the risks posed by this particular spill. Admittedly, the last point is likely due to the fact that the organization appears to lack any scientific expertise on this topic. Their project lead is a journalism major and videographer with no apparent training, education or expertise in the natural sciences.

People keep asking me why I care? My issue is that local and national journalists keep going to “Climate Pete” for his take on these events and then simply report what he has to say without ever having an informed eye look over his claims to see if they make any scientific sense. Hearing him say things that are completely wrong is incredibly frustrating for someone who cares about evidence-based, decision-making. At some point the media has to stop giving him free media (earned media???) time to misinform the public. Moreover, it is time that people who actually understand this topic stand up and explain the facts so the public narrative isn’t dominated by misinformation.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Understanding Health Canada’s advice about wearing masks in public – let’s try this again

Yesterday Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam provided further guidance on wearing masks to protect against the Coronavirus. Her new advice was Canadians should wear a mask as an “added layer of protection” whenever physical distancing is not possible. In doing so, Dr. Tam reinforced that she was not recommending that people wear masks at all times while in public.

This Health Canada recommendations did not please a minority of MDs who are demanding that masks be made mandatory. I have previously explained why health officials did not initially declare masks mandatory and feel it is time to update my post to clarify why this new Health Canada guidance makes sense in my eyes.

Let’s start with what has been recommended. Coronavirus is primarily transmitted by droplet transmission and those droplets are best transported through coughs and talking. At a distance of about 2 meters your likelihood of being affected by a neighbor’s cough or chatting is considered sufficiently low as to not be a concern.

I have little time for those cough chamber results that indicate that coughs may go farther than 2 meters. Those tests were conducted in sealed chambers with no air flow. We live in a world where air is constantly circulating. Find me a store with perfectly still air and the cough chamber results may be useful, until then I will trust the 2 meter rule.

In a crowded transit vehicle, or in a crowd, keeping that 2 meters distance is not always possible. In those situations a mask should be worn. This is official Health Canada policy and is not really up for debate. When you can’t socially distance you should wear a mask. The question is how to behave when you have room to socially distance.

When MDs argue for mandatory masks wearing they imagine that we are all the Conscientious Mask-Wearer (CMW). The CMW wears a fitted mask that they clean/replace regularly. The CMW practices good social distancing and when they get home they take off their mask and immediately put in in the laundry to avoid it cross-contaminating the household. Most-importantly the CMW practices good hand hygiene.

The CMW keeps their hands to themselves in stores. They only touch items that they will take home with them. They wash their hands regularly and, this is critical, don’t ever touch their mask when out of the house. The reason for this is a mask represents a potential reservoir for viral particles. Every time a wearer touches their mask their hands become potentially infected until their hands are disinfected again. So to be a CMW you have to resist touching your mask and if you touch that mask you need to disinfect your hands immediately. Now I think we can all agree that we should all be that virtuous because in a perfect world we would all be CMWs.

Dr. Tam and our health officials don’t imagine we are all that virtuous so they suggest another safe alternative: the Conscientious Non-Mask Wearer (CNMW). The CNMW knows how to socially distance and avoids crowds when shopping. The CNMW knows to cough into their cough pocket (the crook of their elbow). They do this because the cough pocket doesn’t come into contact with other surfaces and isn’t a place you tend to touch. This reduces the risk of contaminating their hands.

The CNMW also practices good hand hygiene just like the CNMW, but doesn’t have to worry about adjusting a finicky mask so keeps their hands away from their face after cleaning them. From a public health perspective the CNMW does not represent a significantly increased risk over a CMW.

The person Dr. Lam and public health officials are most worried about is the Non-Conscientious Mask Wearer (NCMW). The NCMW wears a mask but generally does everything else wrong. They don’t concentrate on socially distancing (because they are wearing a mask so they are already doing their part). The NCMW coughs into their mask and then adjusts the mask because it is uncomfortable. This makes their mask a potential biohazard. After touching their mask the NCMW doesn’t wash their hands and then touches things with those potentially infected hands. When not in use, the NCMW’s mask goes into their pocket, purse or car (thus cross-contaminating those items).

The NCMW presents a serious concern for health officials. Their hands and mask both represent potential sources of infection. Anything they touch becomes a point contact for touch transfer to others. They will infect PIN pads and doorknobs and their mask is a reservoir of viral particles, ripe for infection. Since their mask went into their pocket/purse/car seat those surfaces are now potential sources of contagion for their families as well.

If the NCMW is not infected, but touches an infected surface, then their habit of touching their mask will transfer the virus particles onto the surface of the mask and will turn that mask into a vapourizer for Coronavirus. Because their mask doesn’t actually block the movement of viral particles (its weave is not fine enough) it increases the likelihood that they will inhale viral particles and become infected.

Herein lies the challenge from a public health perspective. The conscientious wearer and conscientious non-wearer both represent an equal risk to the public but the non-conscientious wearer represents a public health threat.

What public health officials also know is using masks correctly is hard. It takes time and effort to get it right. I train employees to wear PPE and even when their employment is on the line I struggle to get them to leave their masks untouched. Masks are uncomfortable and people simply aren’t used to them.

From a training perspective it is a LOT easier to teach people to cough into their cough pockets and not touch things. This is because it builds on years of training we have all been given since kindergarten. Health officials aren’t training from scratch they are building on what our moms taught us from childhood: cough into your cough pockets; wash your hands; and keep your hands to yourself.

As for the people online who repeatedly claim that it is easy to teach people how to wear masks correctly. I welcome them to wander through my local grocery store and see how many people are wearing their masks correctly. Ask the gent in front of me wearing the gloves (don’t get me started with gloves) who keeps pushing into my personal space while touching every item on the shelf. When you can convince me that we can teach that gent how to do it right then get back to me.

The public health professionals know what they are talking about. Wear a mask when you can’t social distance but when in public at a safe social distance it is just as safe to not wear masks. To be clear, if you see me on a bus; I will be wearing a mask. If the store asks me to wear a mask; I will wear a mask because that is store policy. But in situations where I can safely social distance, I will follow our health professionals’ advice and keep my hands to myself while keeping a safe social distance and not wear a mask.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments