Separating oil from manure

Ton Fletcher's column questions some of the talking points around the proposed oil pipeline and refinery.

VICTORIA – I was as surprised as anyone to hear about the plan by this newspaper’s owner, David Black, to begin regulatory work on an oil refinery for Kitimat.

I’ll leave it to others to comment on the practicality of that plan, and whether it would make the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project more acceptable to B.C.’s government and population. Black Press news coverage, columns, letters to the editor and other reader comments are not affected by this project, and there has been a range of views expressed already.

Whatever the merits of the refinery idea, it has advanced the debate over pipelines and the place of oil in our society. And that’s a good thing, because as someone with a basic knowledge of chemistry and some experience in oil refining, I have noticed a lot of ignorance about the subject.

Today I’d like to address some of the main misconceptions, which have been exploited by some opponents. The first one is oil pollution in general and how it gets into the environment.

A global study by the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 calculated the amount of oil making its way into oceans this way: Big tanker spills accounted for 37 million gallons a year, about five per cent of the total marine oil pollution identified.

By far the largest source was oil runoff from land into drains, from oil changes, municipal and industrial wastes and other sources: 363 million gallons. Bilge cleaning and other routine ship maintenance added 137 million gallons, four times the tanker spill average.

Air pollution from vehicles and industry deposited hydrocarbon particles equal to another 97 million gallons; natural seeps added 62 million gallons; offshore drilling discharges accounted for 15 million gallons.

So that’s the first thing to understand. It’s not tankers and pipelines doing most of the polluting. It’s you and me.

Then there is the propaganda about greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands crude. Actor Robert Redford is one of the highest-profile pitchmen for the false notion that “tar sands” oil generates three times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil.

The facts are clear. The most widely cited source is a graph prepared by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which shows that 75 per cent of greenhouse gases from all types of crude occur when the gasoline, jet fuel and diesel are burned by the end user.

Yes, there are variations in emissions on the remaining quarter. Emissions from mined oil sands crude are slightly higher than steam extraction, which is slightly higher than conventionally drilled and pumped crude. The most greenhouse gas-intensive crude used in North America is California heavy crude, which is conventionally drilled.

Burning coal produces far more greenhouse gases than oil, as University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver has calculated.

Two U.S. environmental groups, including the one fronted by Redford, have lately been promoting a study that suggests oil sands crude is more corrosive to pipelines. False, says the industry, showing analysis of pipes that have carried diluted bitumen for decades.

The Trans-Mountain pipeline has been carrying crude from Alberta to Burnaby and Washington state for more than 60 years. It has periodically carried heavy crude for 40 years, and diluted bitumen for 25 years.

Some of that crude is refined in Washington and the gasoline and diesel barged up to supply B.C. gas stations. And of course Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and all other B.C. islands depend on marine fuel shipments.

And let’s not forget the most common heavy oil used in B.C. It’s called asphalt.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca