So this is how it felt when the oil started flowing on the Persian Gulf. This century’s successor to the 20th century’s great energy game is starting to unfold around us. On one side, the inland West is bursting with particularly filthy fossil fuels: Montana and Wyoming coal, North Dakota oil, the vast reserves (third-largest in the world) of Alberta’s tar sands (or, as they say there, “oilsands”). On the other side, China and Asia’s other new industrial powerhouses, thirsty for fuel and paying a hefty premium. And in between, the monkey in the middle, the rich, fragile inland seas of Washington and British Columbia, over which the stuff must travel to reach those premium markets.
Two projects have filled the headlines and drawn the protests: the campaign to run mile-long coal trains over the mountains, along Seattle’s waterfront and up the slippery shores of Puget Sound for shipment to Asia. And the Canadian firm Enbridge’s effort to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would pump tar-sand oil from Edmonton, across the northern-BC vastness, to Kitimat and, eventually, to fuel-thirsty Asia.
But under the cover of those two, a third transport project is taking shape, to little fanfare or alarm on this side of the border, that could affect Washington’s waters more than the others. Kinder Morgan, another pipeline giant that, unlike Calgary-based Enbridge, is based in Houston, Texas, wants to “twin” the 60-year-old Trans Mountain Pipeline that it operates between Edmonton and Burnaby, British Columbia, just across narrow Burrard Inlet from Vancouver.
The new $4-billion “twin” line will in fact be a partly new route: Trans Mountain engineering chief Jim Davies says the company will have to open up new right of way for about a tenth of the 1,150-kilometer line, where development has crowded too close to the current line to allow more construction. The new twin would also be the buster of the litter: Last year Kinder Morgan announced it would double its Trans Mountain capacity from the current 300,000 barrels a day to 600,000, then eventually settled on 750,000. It recently announced that demand was so strong it will triple capacity, to 890,000 barrels a day.
That translates to a figure of more acute concern to residents of the San Juan Islands, Olympic Peninsula, and other shores en route: Kinder Morgan projects that this will raise the number of oil tankers sailing to and from Burnaby via the Georgia, Haro and Juan de Fuca straits from five a month to 25. Other tankers carry crude and refined oil products from the refineries at Washington's Cherry Point and Anacortes and Cherry Point, which receive crude from a spur off the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Most of what they’ll carry won’t be ordinary crude. It will be a more complex, less understood concoction commonly known by what sounds like a cartoon character’s digital avatar: dilbit, short for “diluted bitumen.” Bitumen is the sticky, biologically degraded petroleum that gets steamed and pumped, at considerable expenditure of water, energy and boreal forest, out of the vast sand basins north and west of Edmonton. It’s too thick to pump whole, so it is diluted, about seven parts to three, with lighter oils. Or, more commonly now that natural gas is so cheap, with gas condensates. In a timely twist on the coals-to-Newcastle theme, Kinder Morgan will reverse the flow in a gas pipeline that now runs from Alberta to Texas to supply this diluting agent.
Just what impacts and risks this will entail is a subject of even more dispute than your usual high-stakes environmental debate. At times Trans Mountain’s industry and government promoters (including the Harper administration) and its critics (environmental and watchdog groups, First Nations and local governments in British Columbia) seem to be talking about substances as different as olive oil and Portland cement.
Pipeline opponents argue that even diluted, bitumen is too troublesome, both inside the pipes and out, to risk transporting it. Their case turns not just on dilbit’s density, but on its levels of sulfur, acidity, abrasive particles and friction-generated heat, all of which may speed corrosion in pipelines or tanker hulls.
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