The Kitimat Oil Refinery

by Ray Grigg

David Black seems to care passionately about the environmental health of BC — concerned enough that he considers tanker shipments of Alberta’s tar sands bitumen along the province’s coast to be “the greatest threat to the B.C. environment in our lifetime.” So the owner of Black Press Group, Canada’s largest independent newspaper company, is using his extensive reach to warn of this danger.

In Part I, of a two-part series, he carefully explains bitumen’s propensity to sink in water, its consequent unrecoverability, its toxicity to marine life, and how “a bitumen spill at sea could destroy our coastline, together with the fish and wildlife that depend on it, for hundreds of years.” As precedent, he cites the 250,000 barrels of the less harmful light crude that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, how it contaminated “1,300 miles of shoreline”, and how the damaged fisheries have yet to fully recover. A spill of bitumen would be worse. And he is undoubtedly correct. Convincing, too.

Then, just when he has our attention and trust, his logic leaps sideways, vaults over some extremely relevant issues, makes a few incongruous assumptions, and reaches a wholly unsupportable conclusion. “Fortunately,” he writes at the end of Part I, “there is a solution that is beneficial for all concerned: all we have to do is build a refinery in Kitimat.”

Suddenly, in Part II, the intolerable threat to BC’s coast from spilled bitumen is no longer a threat to the hundreds of ecologically rich rivers and streams of BC’s mountains and valleys because “an oil pipeline [can be built] that will never leak.” And the significance of any tanker accidents are dismissed because they will only spill “gasoline, diesel and jet fuel which float and evaporate”. Even the problem of the Bunker C oil powering the tankers will be solved by “a fleet of new tankers powered by LNG… owned by a company based in BC so it cannot shirk its legal liability if there ever is a spill at sea.”

This project, initially being promoted by Black and his company, Kitimat Clean Ltd., will cost about $25 billion, and will include an $18 billion refinery to process about 550,000 barrels of bitumen per day, a $6 billion bitumen pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat, and a $1 billion natural gas line to fuel the refinery. A fleet of LNG-powered tankers to transport the refined fuels offshore are being considered as a separate commission.

Black has probably been able to found the largest independent newspaper group in Canada because he possesses a rare combination of optimism and realism. But pipelines that “never leak”? And how long will it take to construct the fleet of LNG-powered tankers that will service such a refinery? Would the financiers want them based in BC where the liabilities would likely be onerous? And who would feel comfortable being within 10 kilometres of huge tankers loaded with both explosive fuel and LNG, especially one that is foundering on the rocks somewhere along BC’s rugged coast?

Then there’s the question of greenhouse gas emissions. Even an efficient refinery of new design, like the one proposed for Kitimat, would just offset the dirty oil produced in Alberta’s tar sands — hardly an environmental bonus in a world where fossil fuels must be phased out of use if we are to avoid the ignoble fate of cooking our civilization off the planet. Fossil fuels are last century’s energy; transitioning to non-carbon energy sources is the subject of all foresighted thinking. Given the mounting international political pressure to tax carbon and transfer away from fossil fuels, Black’s promise of “3,000 direct jobs” — “highly paid and permanent” — that “will be available for the life of the refinery which should be in excess of 50 years”, seems disconnected from the reality of our climate situation.

Given escalating climate threats, the new course that our civilization must chart for itself, and the rapid ecological changes now under way, no one can make any reliable promises for 50 years hence. Carbon taxes are inevitable. And global political censure combined with eventual economic sanctions for carbon emitters may make this entire project more a liability than an asset. Before being swayed by the euphoria of a refinery’s short-term benefits, British Columbians and Canadians might want to ask themselves if they want to be part of a problem or a solution. An oil refinery in Kitimat simply perpetuates the environmental folly of the tar sands, burdens Canada with the political dysfunctions of a petrostate, and sinks this province and country into morally low ground that is akin to a pit filled with sticky bitumen. Surely we can do better than this. Is this the legacy Black wants to leave to posterity’s judgment?

Packaging a refinery that would be powered by BC’s anticipated LNG industry seems like a winning combination. But it’s not. LNG is not as environmentally smart as it’s promoted to be. Although burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide as coal, compressing and cooling it to make LNG takes huge amounts of energy. And leakage from natural gas operations — during drilling, fracking, installation and transport — makes it as polluting as coal, according to a Cornell University study (NewScientist, July 6/13). The escaped methane that comprises natural gas is about 25 times more heat-causing than carbon dioxide emissions, so “if leakage exceeds just 0.7 percent,” the Cornell study found, “shale gas will, over 20 years, have as great a greenhouse effect as the coal it replaced” — the estimated leakage from actual natural gas operations is “between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent, exclusive of accidents” (Climate Change, vol. 106, p. 679).

Finally, Black makes the claim that the new technology for the proposed Kitimat refinery would eliminate the production “of very dirty coke (much fouler than BC coal)”. Since no coke, therefore, would be “burned in the atmosphere to create power”, presumably its carbon dioxide would not be released. Not so. Crude oil contains about 85 percent carbon. Whether burned as coke or as refined gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, this CO2 will eventually be released into the atmosphere. Nature makes no distinctions about its source.

The only way to prevent the carbon of any fossil fuel from affecting climate is to leave it in the ground. This is the uncomfortable option that politicians, industrialists and even, it seems, newspaper owners are having difficulty accepting. If the Kitimat refinery is built and we do not begin addressing the fundamental challenge of radically reducing carbon dioxide emissions, in 50 years we will cast a woeful glance back to 2014 and wonder why we didn’t know better. If David Black were to think beyond his lifetime and the operating lifespan of his proposed Kitimat refinery, he would realize that “the greatest threat to the BC environment” is not a bitumen spill, but climate change.