Mike Smyth: Pipeline reality check — there’s bitumen flowing through it right now
As Premier John Horgan turns to B.C.’s highest court in his battle against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, his government is taking aim at the toxic stuff that flows through the pipe: Diluted bitumen.
Bitumen is the thick, heavy crude extracted from Alberta’s oilsands that the B.C. government says poses a dire threat to the public.
“Diluted bitumen, when released into the environment, would endanger human health, the environment and communities,” the government said in a statement Thursday. That’s why the government now proposes strict new regulations on bitumen shipments and is asking the B.C. Court of Appeal to confirm its jurisdiction to do so.
But the government says the new permitting process would only apply to “incremental volume” of bitumen from Alberta, and not to bitumen already flowing through B.C. on a daily basis.
Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain project is actually an expansion of an existing pipeline that’s been operating in B.C. for 65 years. The pipeline currently pumps an average of 60,000 barrels of bitumen a day through B.C.
I asked Horgan if there’s a possibility of a catastrophic bitumen spill happening in B.C. right now.
“Potentially, yeah,” he said.
So if the stuff is so dangerous, why is his government not taking steps to regulate all of it?
“It’s a question of fairness,” Horgan told me. “We wanted this to be forward-looking in the interest of fairness to those who are already conducting business on a regime that existed when they began their business activity.”
So “fairness” to the fossil-fuel industry is more important to Horgan than taking steps to prevent a spill that threatens human health?
Here’s another rationale for this hypocrisy: Choking off existing bitumen shipments could inflate the price of gasoline in B.C. and spark a possible trade war with the Americans. Most of the bitumen currently shipped through B.C. is sent south of the border to refineries in Washington state. Much of that refined product is then sold back to B.C. as fuel.
“Could you imagine what a conniption Gov. Jay Inslee would have if 10 per cent of his state’s oil feedstock disappeared?” asked industry analyst Dan McTeague.
Inslee is the Washington state governor who has forged a close relationship with Horgan and is touted as a possible Democratic nominee for president. We wouldn’t want to annoy him, would we? And I’m sure Horgan doesn’t want to be blamed for even higher gas prices or worse.
“They likely don’t want a NAFTA challenge,” McTeague said. “It could also cause the Loonie to drop.”
All very unpleasant consequences, so much better to focus on “incremental” bitumen shipments, and accept the current risk of a spill.
So is this fight really about protecting the environment, B.C. communities and human health? Or is it about appeasing environmental activists inside the NDP and Horgan’s governing partners in the B.C. Green party?
The strategy is clearly “death by delay” — tie the project up in court and hope Kinder Morgan gives up and cancels the whole project. The company has set a May 31 deadline to resolve the impasse with B.C., though the court case is certain to drag out beyond that date. That could trigger action by the federal government and Alberta. Both are considering putting taxpayers’ money into the pipeline to save it.
No matter what happens, it appears Alberta’s current bitumen shipments will continue to flow through B.C.