The 6.4 million barrel question







One by one, the leaders of the opposition stepped up to voice their concern: no, non, no, to Northern Gateway.

And one by one, the leaders of the opposition gave a little shrug when asked what should replace its ever-growing hole in oilsands production.

If the fracas around Northern Gateway’s pre-ordained green light is any indication, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair are waiting until their expected victory to fill in the blanks on their energy policy.

And that’s unfortunate.

Because while the Tories dropped the bomb of a decision, then ducked for cover, Harper’s two main rivals came out to lambast the choice.  As such, this is now the focal point of Canadian energy police; alternatives be damned.

Because the alternatives are coming anyway.  And we should probably get ready.

Let’s begin by noting how absolutely flawed the Northern Gateway pipeline is.

Putting aside the obvious economic benefit of increasing oilsands production, the pipeline project itself will only bring a pittance of 200 jobs.  Even then, the line likely isn’t operational until the — wildly optimistic — date of 2018.

Then you get into the environmental impacts.  I’m sure you don’t need me to put pen to paper (er, finger to keyboard?) to tell you how many absurd risks and problems there are with the Northern Gateway plan.  The plan essentially involves threading the needle; where the needle is a highly sensitive network of streams and rivers in an ecologically critical section of Canada, and the thread is a really big ship filled with oil.

And then there’s the zealous social organizing aimed at killing the pipeline — a mix of domestic and international environmental organizations, First Nations groups, and NIMBY homeowners — that promises to bring social disorder in the name of stopping Northern Gateway.

Nevermind the utterly flatfooted way in which Enbridge has approached the project, marvelling the world at their confoundingly poor PR and general ineptitude.

But just like when you’ve half-way wiggled into a pair of skinny jeans and you know there’s no turning back, the Tories have soldiered on with a fundamentally flawed plan.

So the Tories set their 209 conditions and, perhaps, Enbridge will be able to satisfy all of them and survive the ultimate slew of court battles.

Irrespective of that boondoggle, Canada’s economy actually does rely on getting more oil to port.

Now, it’s worth noting that there are people who say production in Athabasca needs to be halted.  Those people are wrong.

There’s about a dozen reasons why but, here’s a really good one: Canada can find ways to offset the increase of CO2 that comes along with expanding oilsands production, it just requires some political and private capital.  You can’t argue that the capital is currently being spent or that Ottawa is anywhere near approaching that level of offset but, hey, it’s possible.

Further, a transition to low-carbon is still a long way off.  And to those who stomp their feet and say that we need to start investing now, well, we are investing: now.

Nova Scotia leads the world in tidal energy research, Newfoundland and Quebec are expanding hydro capacity in a way that promises to make them a lynchpin of Eastern energy independence.  Ontario has — in its own special, inept, way — developed an extensive wind network that might eventually be efficient.  The West, meanwhile, has pumped so much money into green technology — thanks to the oilsands — that there may actually be more money than research capacity.

None of those technologies, however, are enough to power the country for more than a few minutes.  None of them will fuel our cars.  None of them will bring our trade balance anywhere near equilibrium.

And what comes of the stubborn opposition to further oilsands development, or increased pipeline capacity?

It means that Saudi and Nigerian oil is heading to Portland and Boston, to be pumped onto tanker truck and railcars, to be sent up North to waiting refineries in Montreal and New Brunswick.  That is, if the Americans don’t refine it themselves and sell it at a markup.  In some cases, we send South our Eastern oil, a product that few of our refineries are equipped to handle, only to buy it back at a premium.  All those ships, trucks and trains, at some point, carry a huge liability.  Look no further than Lac Megantic.

And that’s without getting to the West, where Albertan oil is displacing grain on our railroads, because it has to get to market somehow.

The whole thing is a mess, and a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s a simple numbers game: one pipeline, outfitted with serious safety measures, is infinitely safer than a thousand railcars and trucks criss-crossing the country.  The Transportation Safety Board reports that the number of pipeline accidents per year is about 0.8 per exajoule (a unit roughly equivalent to 172 million barrels of oil.)  The rail accident rate is 2.3 accidents per million main-track train-miles.

In non-fancy language: rail is infinitely less safe.  Accidents on the road, meanwhile, are about twice that of rail.  Pipeline incidents occur in single-digits, rail incidents in the dozens, and road incidents in the hundreds.

In other words: not expanding oil sands production means we have less money to invest into green energy, the more accidents that oil spills occur, and the more dirty oil we import from overseas.

So rejecting Northern Gateway isn’t ending oil transport, it’s just shifting them somewhere else.  Approving it, on the other hand, is simplifying the process.

When I asked, Thomas Mulcair said he would focus on an East-to-West pipeline.  The go-to answer for the union-types.

Yet what are we really talking, there?  At 1.1 million barrels per day, it’s one of the more substantive options.  Problem is, Energy East has a pretty hefty price tag — it requires retrofitting natural gas lines, repairing old sections, expanding the line, building marine terminals in Atlantic Canada, and upgrading refineries in Quebec.  And when that’s all done, you’re getting substantially lower prices than you would from Chinese markets.

Reversing Line 9, with its 300,000 barrel capacity, could make that a little more worthwhile, but pumping Eastward would still remain an additional project, not the main plan.

But looking at that option does make Northern Gateway seem a bit small.  The BC plan would only move about 525,000 barrels of oil per day, and another 193,000 barrels of additive.  It is, of course, half the length of Energy East.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain plan is the obvious one.  It’s already preferred by the federal Conservatives and Trudeau’s Liberals.  That project is expected to pump only 890,000 barrels per day — maybe 1.1 million, maybe to ports in Vancouver.

Taking all four plans, we’re looking at 1.4 million barrels heading Eastward, and 1.4 million heading Westward (very rough calculations, here.)

So that’s an increase of about 2.8 million, over current production levels of 3.5 million, assuming each barrel of export corresponds to an additional barrel of production and that everything otherwise goes exactly as planned for the oil industry — which, surprise, it never does.

That appears to be where the CAPP estimate of 6.4 million barrels per day of oilsand production, by 2030, comes from.

Interestingly, that implies that CAPP doesn’t figure increased production if Keystone is approved.

But that’s a pretty tenuous calculation.  It requires everything to fall into place more-or-less perfectly.  And considering that aspects of all four Canadian lines are almost certainly doomed to delay, if not outright death, replacements should probably be figured out.

Especially if Canadians elect someone else other than Harper.

There’s been some suggestions that industry could trace a route that involves hitting a deep water port in the Northwest Territories, or to Churchill, Manitoba — that, of course, invariably involves some heavy tanker navigation of the Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait.  So good luck with that.

There’s also one substantially more expensive plan, proposed by some BC First Nations, that could give Enbridge the social licence it so desperately needs.  But that seems a bit far fetched.

Elizabeth May, meanwhile, has proposed blowing up Albertan refining capacity so that it can handle the heavy bitumen, in order to pump out lighter — safer — crude to market.  There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that approach.

So what are Trudeau and Mulcair proposing?

They should either inform Canadians of exactly what limit they’re imposing on oilsands production, or explain how they plan on encouraging other transportation routes.



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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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