Print Edition: September 12, 2012
While most environmentally- concerned British Columbians are focused on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, many are unaware that an existing pipeline is already carrying diluted tar sands bitumen right through our backyard.
The Trans-Mountain pipeline was built in the early 50s, and was intended to transport conventional oil for local use. However in 2005, Kinder Morgan (an American energy company) purchased the line and has instead been using the pipeline for transporting tar sands bitumen to the coast for export.
Now, Kinder Morgan has submitted a new proposal hoping to put in another pipeline parallel to the first.
Sheila Muxlow is a member of a group of concerned local residents known as PIPE UP (pro-information, pro-environment united people). The goal of PIPE UP, Muxlow says, is education and awareness about the risks associated with transporting tar sands diluted bitumen.
Public knowledge of the pipeline and its proposed twin line is limited, especially in comparison to public awareness of the Northern Gateway proposal.
We dont have stringent regulations when it comes to moving tar sands, Muxlow said, explaining how Kinder Morgan was able to switch product without informing the public of the change. Overall [the lack of awareness] has to do with the lack of regulations that exist for big companies to have to be transparent with the public when they are using old infrastructure to transport new product, regardless of how increased the toxicity is or the increased risk of spills.
Kinder Morgans proposed expansion would mean a brand new pipeline from Edmonton to the coast. It would cross the Lower Mainland close to schools, residential areas, farmland, watersheds and drinking water sources.
PIPE UPs major concern is that tar sand diluted bitumen is much more at risk of spillage than conventional oil.
On a local level, the fact that tar sands diluted bitumen is more subject to spills is an issue because it is a more corrosive product, Muxlow explained. Tar sands at room temperature are solid, so to move it through a pipeline they have to dilute it with a cocktail of different solvents including benzene and other polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Then even so, when they get it to a state where it is fluid, theyll have to pump it at higher temperatures, and at higher pressure to get it through the pipeline.
This is an issue of concern even in brand new pipes, Muxlow said, let alone in a pipeline built in the early 50s. The Keystone pipeline, running from Alberta to Nebraska was built in 2010 and was designed specifically for transport of tar sand diluted bitumen. In its first year alone there were 12 instances of spillage.
An oil spill in the Fraser Valley would not only have a huge impact environmentally, Muxlow stated, but would be a significant hazard to human health.
There is the issue with increased health risks for residents, with the chemical cocktail of dilutants they add to tar sands to move it through the pipes, she said. When its spilled, it evaporates into the air quite quickly. When it does that, it is this really noxious, odorous cloud that lingers in the air.
Long-term effects are not fully understood, but benzene, which is a major component of the product, has been directly linked to blood cancer.
Michael Hale, who is a member of PIPE UP, was shocked to learn that the pipeline runs directly under his farmland, and that diluted bitumen is already being transported through his property. After the shock wore away, Hale became determined to know more.
We have all these hearings for Enbridge northern gateway pipeline, yet suddenly theres tar sands being shipped right here, Hale says. We have to talk about what our community wants and other alternatives.
Hale looked specifically at the economics of the pipeline, trying to determine any benefits of an expansion.
We are getting royalties, Hale explained, and that would double, but its still a pittance.
The other thing that really smacks you in the eye, he continued, is that the companies dont address the economic costs and environmental risks associated with any spill. If you have a big spill, that comes to hundreds and millions of dollars in costs to clean up.
This is the outcome that PIPE UP is struggling against.
If we can stop Kinder Morgan from transporting tar sand diluted bitumen, Muxlow concluded, that would send a really strong message that this is not a piece of infrastructure that we want as part of our economy. We dont want to be a doormat. The best way to help achieve that is just public awareness.