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The chemistry, economics and politics of oil sands

National Energy Board to review Northern Gateway proposal.

Dateline: Monday, January 23, 2012

by Mehdi Rizvi

The current debate on the construction of Northern Gateway pipeline to feed hungry Asian markets with Alberta oil exports, has drawn the nation's attention to a giant project that will have far reaching affects on the Canadian economy, environment and social life — especially since the United States' rejection of the Keystone XL project.

Alberta's oil sands deposits, which exceed 174.5 billion barrels, constitute one of the largest deposits in the world. Production is expected to reach three billion barrels per day (bpd) by 2018. The black gold of Alberta occurs over an area of 140,000 square kilometers. About ten percent of the resource can be surfaced mined — rest is deeply buried, and can be challenging to extract.


Bitumen needs huge quantities of pure water for processing.

Oil sands are low-grade fossil fuels, consisting of bitumen (a solid organic matter at room temperature) mixed with sedimentary sand, and without any natural gas component. Tar sands are highly viscous, heavy, and contaminated with some mineral salts and sulfur.

Bitumen's load of "heavy" (high molecular weight) hydrocarbons distinguishes it from regular petroleum, which is lighter and rich in low molecular weight hydrocarbons. Bitumen requires extensive processing and treatment with water and various condensates to bring it close to viscosity levels and flow characteristics of normal petroleum.

With the proposed $5.5 billion Northern Gateway project, Enbridge wants to build two 1,172 Km long pipelines from Athabasca, Alberta to Kitimat on the BC coast. One would be a 36 inch diameter pipeline to carry mostly-treated bitumen to Kitmat for export up to 525,000 barrels per day. The other would be 20 inch diameter pipeline that would transport up to 193,00 barrels per day of imported condensates used to dilute bitumen, to ease its flow in the opposite direction.

The proposed project has the full support of the government and some energy suppliers. But local Aboriginal communities, Canadian Association of Petroleum producers, environmental organizations and many individual citizens have different views.

The situation has brought forward strong arguments on all sides. Environmentalists warn of the effects of the tar sands' green house gases on global warming, while business interests argue against compromising huge economic gains for environmental safety.

To weigh the arguments, the National Energy Board formed a Review Panel of Experts, which has started proceedings on January 10th. More than 4000 people will share their opinions about whether the pipeline is in the national interest and poses no threat to environmental safety. Public hearings are expected to be completed by June 2013.

The government openly supports the pipeline. In a recent TV interview, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "I believe selling energy products to Asia is in the country's national interest".

Foreign Minister John Baird tried to straddle the difference in a January 18 speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto. He did say that the project, which needed twelve to fifteen months for completion, "would now take more than three years after current objections." After his speech, I asked him from the floor, "How do you compare economic gains against environmental damages? " He said, "We believe protection is important and it can be done safely. We want to make sure the environment is safe, with economic benefits for the country".

Enbridge and the federal government say this project is necessary for economic growth that would add $270 billion to the Canadian economy over its lifetime. BC would gain $ 1.2 billon in tax revenues over 30 years. Although Enbridge says 3000 jobs will be created, opponents point out that the job boom would be temporary and short.

As a chemist, I understand the issue has three dimensions — chemistry, economics and politics — and it needs to be honestly debated, researched and resolved in the best interest of the nation and nature.

Chemistry counts because transporting oil sands through rocky sea channels is not safe and would not be friendly to the natural environment in case of large spills, which we have repeatedly experienced in the BC coastal region. Economics often encourages companies to make profits at others' cost; and politics with indirect financial and political interests knows how to find ways to attain targeted goals. Politics allows tar sands producers to rely heavily on temporary foreign workers, sometimes undercutting local wages in the process.

Business argues that a profitable quarter or year matters more than concern for public and environmental health. Yet the potential public costs are considerable. For starters, bitumen needs huge quantities of pure water for processing. Greenhouse gases and organics discharges are harmful to marine life and will not be good for region's flora and fauna.

Environmental experts believe it is irresponsible and short sighted to go ahead with pipeline construction. Tar sands processing may accelerate climate change. Kitimat chief councilor Ellis Ross says, "We have not seen any technology that can guarantee no spills in future and if it is there, could the spill be completely cleaned?"

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver rejected opposing views on the issue, and in effect accused naysayers of treason, saying, "They use funds from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national interests."

Canada needs a comprehensive policy on energy and environment based on scientific facts and figures, independent of pipeline politics. Economic realities keep on changing but scientific truths are eternal. We should leave the matter to science-based realities and research. Science is honest and friendly to life and will save and serve us better.

Mehdi Rizvi is a former member of the Community Editorial Board, Toronto Star and an affiliate of the Center of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, which is a consortium of three Toronto universities. He is a chemist who has worked in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, cement and UV printing products for the last 35 years.


  NDP cries foul over use of temporary foreign workers at tar sands

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