The bother of bitumen.

It should be made clear: bitumen is not oil. Distilled, bitumen becomes asphalt pitch, refined it can become synthetic oil. Bitumen is not ‘heavy oil’ and it is a lengthy, highly polluting process to convert Canada’s Athabasca tar sands into synthetic oil. While we can compute the hundreds of billions of barrels of potential oil from the tar sands, we have to realize that the pollution of our environment will be immeasurable.

To start with, it takes large quantities of steam or hot water to effectively wash the sand from each barrel of bitumen. The greasy sand and fouled water are the first by-products of the process. They start the pollution process. The pollution increases dramatically when you refine the bitumen into synthetic oil. The carbon and heavy metals sent into the air from the oil refining process are just part of the problem. There is a bitumen coke residue from the refining. People who do not care about the environment can use this high carbon, high sulphur slag as a fuel.

Alberta oil and tar sands companies have certainly tried to contain the pollution problem. They already have about 80 million tons of bitumen coke filling old tar sands pits and tailing ponds and any other place that it can be dumped.

Why else would Alberta insist on exporting unprocessed bitumen? The province will export it in any direction—south to the Texas Gulf oil ports, west to Kitimat and Vancouver, B.C., or east to Saint John, N.B. or Portland, Maine. Alberta does not want to destroy the environment of more than half the province by trying to process the bitumen at home. The province is allowing others to destroy the environment that we all share.

If Alberta tar sands companies produced synthetic oil from bitumen, they would not have to add hydrocarbons, polymers or light crude oil to the bitumen to help it flow through pipelines. Nor would it be necessary to heat the bitumen or increase the pressure in the pipeline to put more bitumen through the pipelines.

And it is this heat and pressure that already appears to be increasing the number of pipeline accidents. Bitumen slurry does not act like crude oil when it has a pipeline accident. When Enbridge had that bitumen spill near Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 25 and 26, 2010, it dumped 843,000 US gallons (later estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at over 1 million US gallons) of the heated bitumen slurry into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

Unlike crude oil that floats, bitumen is heavier than water and as the hydrocarbons from the bitumen slurry dispersed in the air, the bitumen sank to the bottom of the river. That took time and, during that time, the spill traveled some 40 kilometres down river. The last published figure for the cost of the clean-up has now past US$675 million. The bitumen clean-up continues.

And Enbridge thinks we should trust the company to reverse its old Line 9 that runs through Toronto and pipe bitumen slurry to the east coast so that it can be shipped to countries where people do not care about polluting our environment.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

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