Shipping bitumen in tankers a bad decision

If you thought the Exxon Valdez (1999) was bad, this will be much worse.

My name is David Black. I am the majority owner of Black Press, the company that owns this newspaper. This is the first of two columns addressing what I see as the greatest threat to the BC environment in our lifetime. I am a reasonably sensible and conservative businessman, not an alarmist. All of the information in this column can be confirmed from public sources.

The oil industry wants to export Alberta bitumen to Asia via tankers. Under no circumstances should we allow that to happen. A bitumen spill at sea could destroy our coastline, together with the fish and wildlife that depend on it, for hundreds of years.

Bitumen, even if it is diluted, does not float in sea water if there is sediment present. This has been proven many times, most recently in a thorough Environment Canada study published on Nov. 30, 2013. Page 51 of the study provides graphic evidence of sunken bitumen. Given that there is an abundance of sediment along the BC coast, the bitumen will sink rapidly and there will be little chance of recovering any of it if there is a spill. By Northern Gateway’s own admission the likelihood of a bitumen spill at sea is over 10 per cent over the next 50 years. Others say that it is much higher. We are in agreement with the position taken by the Coastal First Nations that even the slightest risk of a spill of bitumen at sea is unacceptable.

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 is often held up as an example of how bad an oil spill at sea can be, however, a spill of bitumen at sea would be much worse. The Exxon Valdez carried light crude and lost 250,000 barrels, one eighth of a tanker load. The light oil floated and could be removed from the beaches. Even so, after four years of work with up to 11,000 workers and 1,400 boats involved, less than 10 per cent of it was recovered. Roughly 200,000 birds and many kinds of other wildlife were killed. Approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline were affected and the fishery has yet to fully recover. Bitumen is very different. It would harden up on shore and much of it would sink to the bottom, making it unrecoverable and killing virtually everything with which it came in contact. Imagine if we lost a full tanker load.

Some say that, with GPS-based navigation and double hulls, spills such as Exxon Valdez are not possible today. They are wrong. Double hulls do not prevent hull fracture if there is a collision at speed, only if there is a gentle scrape. As for the GPS claim, most marine accidents are caused by human inattention, not by a lack of knowledge about position. All ships carried systems to indicate their location before GPS came along. The Exxon Valdez crew could have glanced at their instruments to determine their location but they didn’t, neither did the crew on the Queen of the North. Marine disasters regularly occur and a quick search of the internet shows human error is most often the problem. Undoubtedly there will be many more marine accidents in future. Our grandchildren will not thank us if we willingly risk the destruction of the BC coast on our watch.

Fortunately there is a solution that is beneficial for all concerned: all we have to do is build a refinery at Kitimat. The refinery will convert the bitumen to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel which float and evaporate if they are spilled. Often little or no spill remediation is required. These refined fuels simply do not cause the habitat destruction of conventional or synthetic crude oil, or anywhere near the devastation caused by bitumen.

The second part of this OPED will run in the next issue. It will discuss the enormous value-add benefits and environmental advantages of a modern green refinery. The pipeline from Alberta and the tanker fleet to export the refined fuels will also be considered.

Let me declare my biases. I am for creating thousands of good permanent jobs in BC. I am for creating billions of new tax dollars for government coffers. I am for reducing the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. I am for building an oil pipeline that will never leak.  I am for building a modern tanker fleet that carries only refined fuels that float and evaporate if spilled. I am against shipping bitumen in tankers.

If you agree that we should not put bitumen in tankers please contact your local MP and say so. The Canadian government makes a decision on this next month.

David Black

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