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Monday, September 23, 2013

Crude, by any other name…

Karen Wristen is Living Oceans' Executive Director and leads our Tankers campaign that is focused on keeping Canada's Pacific North Coast tanker-free. 

When I saw the video coverage of the train derailment at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, horror quickly turned to anger.  As I listened to the fear and awe in the voices of those who escaped, describing “le chaleur…” I was instantly suspicious that this was not an explosion of conventional crude oil. A quick text to a reporter at the scene confirmed my hunch:  it was labelled “crude oil”, but it came from North Dakota. The Bakken oil shale fields in that state are producing something quite unlike the oil that we’ve known for the past century.  In fact, it more closely resembles gasoline in volatility.

Freight train derailment at Lac Mégantic (QC) this summer resulted
in a loss of life and half of the town's centre. 

But what, I wondered, was North Dakota crude of any sort doing on a Canadian train headed to a Canadian refinery? I understood it was law in the US that all crude had to be refined in the country. Looking a little more deeply into the matter, I uncovered an ironic twist in the fate of the oil industry.

When tarsands and oil shale production began to look economically feasible, U.S. refineries began the extensive refitting and reconfiguration needed to deal with heavy, bituminous oils. Anticipating the Keystone XL pipeline would be approved, the plan was to bring those heavy oils to the Gulf refineries.

Two things went wrong with that plan. First, Keystone proved to be one of the most galvanizing issues to sweep the U.S. since the Vietnam war.  Then the Bakken fields proved to be holding, not the expected heavy crude, but quite the opposite: gases and light liquids like the one that exploded that July night in Lac-Mégantic. Opened for permitting purposes as “crude oil” sites, the product of the Bakken fields is reported in U.S. statistics as “crude” and, as we now know, shipped as “crude.” And tragically, it is being shipped in rail cars that were designed for crude and not for the highly explosive product that it is.

The U.S. industrial conundrum becomes extremely pertinent for us in Canada because the product that exploded at Lac-Mégantic is the very thing tarsands producers use to thin the bitumen that they pump through the pipelines that run through our towns and cities. With a ready market for the product just over the border and the only ‘nearby’ refinery being Irving’s in New Brunswick, we can expect to see a lot more of the stuff crossing the border.

In fact, if the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is approved and goes ahead, several hundred tankers loaded with the same kind of product will be navigating Douglas Channel every year, bringing condensate to the pipeline for transportation to the tarsands, and back again, mixed with the bitumen. Which leads us to wonder where Kinder Morgan will be getting the condensate they need to move bitumen through the Port of Vancouver.

I know I’ll be approaching all level railway crossings with a new measure of caution.

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