The lies that bind.

One of the most serious problems faced by first responders in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was the inability to determine what type of oil was supposedly in the more than 70 railway tanker cars that rolled unattended into town. And you can imagine why the signs required by the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) on the tankers themselves were useless. People close enough to read the information on the burning and exploding cars are unlikely to still be with us.

But when companies are allowed to write their own Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and play fast and lose with product names for public relations purposes, it can destroy the effectiveness of the WHMIS program. A good example of this is the MSDS issued by Cenovus Energy of Calgary, Alberta in April 2013. It is an MSDS for what the company calls Heavy Crude Oil/Diluent Mix. The company ships this product as Petroleum Crude Oil. It is only when you read the hazardous ingredients section of the MSDS that you learn that the product is between 50 to 90 per cent Bitumen.

It further describes this product as “A naturally occurring mixture of paraffins, napthalenes, aromatic hydrocarbons and small amounts of sulphur and nitrogen mixed with condensates.” And to think you get all that from washing the sand out of tar sands!

But bitumen or diluted bitumen is not oil. The chemical formula is very different. Oil floats. Bitumen will sink in water as any diluents disperse or evaporate. Oil is liquid. Bitumen is viscous. When refined into synthetic oil, bitumen leaves a residue of bitumen coke that is a high sulphur and carbon compound that can be used as fuel but has serious pollution problems. In fact, everything about bitumen disturbs environmentalists. It leaves a trail of pollution and a high carbon footprint no matter what you do with it.

So why do companies, such as Cenovus Energy, call it heavy oil? Why does Enbridge, in their bid to reverse their Line 9B pipeline through Toronto, talk around the fact that the pipeline will be used to run high temperature bitumen at high pressures to east coast shipping terminals?

Quebec and Ontario refineries want light oil to refine into gasoline and other products. They do not want the refining problems, pollution and slag left over from the refining of bitumen. Maybe when the oil companies and the pipeline people stop lying to Canadians, we can have an honest dialogue on the problems.


Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to

Comments are closed.