Better Living with Bitumen.

Reading an apologist for Alberta’s tar sands exploiters the other day, we learned that the little town of Hardisty, Alberta is the hub of a North American maze of pipelines. This town of 550 people can store up to 25 million barrels of diluted bitumen before sending it east, south or west by pipeline or rail car. The only question you are not allowed to ask is why it is not refined into synthetic crude oil before being shipped.

And that is the crux of Alberta’s problem. They can confuse people as much as they like by calling them ‘oilsands’ but The Athabasca and Cold Lake fields are among the largest deposits in the world of what we know as tar sands. That tarry substance that has been called ‘pitch’ in earlier times is actually bitumen. If you refined all that bitumen into synthetic crude oil before you shipped it, the entire province would be several metres deep in carbon deposits known as bitumen slag. The worst of it is that bitumen slag is very light and the first strong breeze coming across the Rockies could blow that carbon into Northern Ontario.

And you can be sure that Saskatchewan and Manitoba farmers would be less than thrilled having to plow their fields wearing breathing masks and protective goggles. How they would protect the livestock is a different matter.

And that is why they want to call that stuff in these new pipelines ‘crude oil.’ It is really diluted bitumen. There are various types of diluent material used but they are usually oil based as that can help move the heated mixture through a pipeline at higher pressure. It is this higher pressure that worries us the most about these pipelines.

Normal, relatively safe, oil and gas pipelines have been in service for many years. There have been some spills but they get cleaned up and life goes on.

Not so with diluted bitumen. On water, this stuff floats along a bit because of the diluent and then gradually sinks to the bottom where it can stay for ever. Ask the people on the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan how that works for them. And that was a small bitumen spill. The people along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan had billions spent trying to clean up their river. It will take that ecosystem many years to recover.

The simple facts are that Canadians would better off paying those nice people in Hardisty, Alberta a CEO’s pension for the rest of their lives. That damn bitumen is best left in the ground.

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Copyright 2017 © Peter Lowry

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