Investigative Feature: tar sands oil poised for west coast shipping, one way or another

DOT-111 tankers, like those pictured, are capable of carrying dangerous goods, according to Transportation Canada’s safety criteria, but transportation safety agency throughout North America admit to safety design flaws.
DOT-111 tankers, like those pictured, are capable of carrying dangerous goods, according to Transportation Canada’s safety criteria, but transportation safety agency throughout North America admit to safety design flaws.

Whether the much-maligned Northern Gateway or the controversial twinning of the Trans Mountain pipelines actually come to fruition or not, heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta are poised to flow to the west coast, according to oil industry experts and negotiations involving rail companies.

Substantial opposition to pipeline projects in BC has proven to be a boon for rail companies, which have experienced exponential growth in transporting crude oil in recent years.  According to data compiled from Statistics Canada, the monthly average of rail cars loaded with fuel oils and crude petroleum in the Western Division of Canada increased by 88.6 per cent between 2011 and 2012, and increased an additional 49.2 per cent in the first two months of 2013.  Canadian Pacific Railway reported record first quarter results in 2013 , citing the crude business as a key driver, and expects to nearly triple its carloads carrying crude by the end of 2015. And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby group – projects Western Canadian crude exports by rail in the final quarter of 2013 to be nearly triple what it was in the third quarter of 2012.

Oil transported by rail has been in the national media’s spotlight recently because of this sharp growth rate, and because of a string of recent derailments spilling crude oil. CP’s latest spill occurred May 21st outside Jansen, Saskatchewan ; on April 3rd, near White River, Ontario, a CP derailment spilled more than 65,500 litres.

Given these trends, will the Robson Valley see an increase of oil on rail sent through its communities?  Is rail a safer option than pipeline?  Will the communities be consulted or informed about the increase transportation of crude oil (a dangerous good, as defined by Transportation Canada) through their communities?

Crude through the Robson Valley?

Stephen Harper, making a public pitch for the Kestyone XL Pipeline in NYC earlier this month, said he thinks the facts are “overwhelmingly” on the side of approval, according to a CBC story. Harper said he was confident oil from the tar sands would be sent to the US Gulf Coast, if not by pipeline then by rail.

The sentiment of rail being an alternative to pipelines is echoed by BC media mogul David Black, whose company Kitimat Clean Ltd. proposes to build a refinery near Kitimat which would be designed specifically to process heavy crude from Alberta’s tar sands.

“If BC remains set against a pipeline the oil will come to the refinery by rail,” Black wrote in a proposal presentation to the BC Chamber of Commerce in March.  “CN and the oil companies are keen on this.”

Black’s proposed refinery could handle the entire volume of the Northern Gateway Pipeline: over 500,000 barrels a day.

In a phone interview Black confirmed that he’s been in early conversations with CN to transport 400,000-500,000 barrels a day. But his preference is for a pipeline.

“Experts say the pipeline is safer.”

Black recently received the backing of China’s largest bank for his $25-billion proposal, expressed support from Christy Clark and has an agreement with the BC government for 3,000 hectares of Crown land, according to both Black’s press releases and various news articles. If Black’s proposal is to becomes a reality, that could mean 12 more trains a day through the Robson Valley (six northbound and six southbound), Black said.

According to the CN customer service line, the daily number of trains coming through the Valley is currently 40-45.

Black said small towns along the CN route with level crossings would rue having 12 more trains running through every day.

“Obviously there’s more disruptions for people with those level crossings,” Black said on the phone. “Valemount fits that description, I’ve been through there myself on the train a few times.”

Black’s project has been dismissed by some people as lacking support from the major energy companies in Alberta. But in a Financial Post article on June 1, Black responded to the lack of interest from Alberta for his proposed refinery: “I don’t need them to put their money up, and I don’t need their expertise. I can get the money elsewhere and I can buy the expertise.”

Another ambitious project currently under development, by a company called G7G, proposes to build a new rail line from Fort McMurray to just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, where heavy crude from Alberta could then be piped to Valdez.  G7G was awarded $1.8-million from the Alberta government in May, according to a press release on their website, to conduct further research. Although G7G’s proposed route would go north of the Valley, the scope of its ambition points to an increase of oil flowing from Alberta to the West Coast, one way or another. And the exponential growth of CN and CP transports in crude oil –forecasted into the foreseeable future – means that protesting pipelines, whether Northern Gateway or Trans Mountain, may do little to slow the flow of oil down.

Greg Stringham, VP of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said rail companies are currently investigating options to move crude by rail to the West Coast. “We have been removing what we use for diluent from the West Coast into Western Canada already, so [rail companies] have the facilities in place, but I don’t think they’re using them yet,” Stringham said.

Mark Hallman, media spokesman for CN, said there are no fixed plans to transport heavy crude from Alberta to the West Coast at this time.

Hallman notes, however, that CN started testing movement specifically of crude oils in 2010; in 2011 they moved around 5,000 car loads of crude oil, then in 2012 they moved more than 30,000 car loads of crude oil to various North American markets.

“We believe the company has the scope to double that scope of business in 2013.”

“Our corporate policy is not to engage in speculation,” Hallmann added.

CP Rail is already transporting 5,000-8,000 barrels per day to the Burnaby refinery, Ray Lord, manager of public and government affairs at the refinery said.

“We’ve just initiated deliveries here by crude, started in late May … given the fact that the pipeline is over subscribed.”

Any options involving CN rail transporting crude to the west coast would inevitably involve the Robson Valley, through which the CN line runs.

Safety of crude transport by rail questioned by transportation safety agencies

The safety of rail cars to transport crude oil has been harshly criticized in Canada as well as the US.

An American Press story published late last year revealed that over two-thirds of the continental fleet uses a model called DOT-111 to transport dangerous goods.  DOT-111’s are easily recognizable by their soda-bottle-shape and wide-range use across the continent. And an email correspondence between Greepeace Canada and Transportation Canada – shared with The Goat – verified the same is true in Canada; perhaps even more so. But transportation safety agencies on both sides of the border acknowledge serious safety flaws.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board released an investigation in 2009 of a 1994 derailment, stating, “The susceptibility of 111 tank cars to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues.” The American National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation of a 2009 CN derailment and fire, noting “that DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents … This accident demonstrates the need for extra protection …”

Hallman points out that rail cars are not owned by CN, but owned by shippers or rail leasing companies.

“The standards of the cars are set by regulators such as Transport Canada or the US Federal Railroad Administration … and then car manufactures comply with those standards.”

But despite transportation safety agencies making safety recommendations in both countries on the use of DOT-111’s, the rail industry has resisted the costly changes, according to a number of news reports.

“The tanker companies, they’re not allowed to build tankers like this anymore,” Keith Stewart, a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, said. “What [the rail industry has] successfully done is to have the old ones grandfathered so that they don’t have to retrofit them to be safer.”

But Hallman says “rail transportation is highly regulated by the federal government. CN complies with existing regulation.”

The American rail industry made a similar proposal to the US National Transportation Safety Board, leaving 30,000-45,000 cars carrying dangerous goods out of their plan to increase rail safety. The proposal is currently being considered by the US Department of Transportation—a process that could take several years. In the meantime, DOT-111’s that have been proven susceptible to rupture upon derailment continue to be used to transport dangerous goods across North America.

War of numbers, nobody winning

The pipeline and rail industries are currently fighting a war of numbers to prove which mode of transportation is safer, with both industries claiming numbers are on their side. Most analysts agree, however, that while derailments are more frequent than pipeline leaks, lower volumes are usually released and are immediately known, while pipeline leaks can spill far higher volumes, may go undetected longer, and may occur in more remote areas, slowing response times.

Which is better for the Robson Valley?

Residents won’t be asked on the rail option because rail companies don’t face the same obstacles of regulation as pipelines do, including public consultation, according to a briefing note obtained by the Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act last October and reported in a CBC story. Transport Canada officials acknowledged the lack of hurdles facing transport of crude by rail, compared to pipelines, but marine terminals and tanker traffic would still be subject to environmental assessments, according to the story.

When asked if CN conducts public consultation on its proposals to transport crude to the west coast, Hallman said, “No that’s not the case. CN has been shipping various petroleum and chemical products for over a hundred years, in terms of the predecessors of the company.”

Another alternative

With the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion plans progressing, and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Joint Review expected to reach a conclusion by December, the future of oil flowing through Robson Valley – by either rail or pipe – is very much at a crossroads.  But for Stewart, who has campaigned against climate change for over a decade, his perfect world is markedly different than David Black’s.

“The solution to the tar sands can’t be found in the tar sands,” Stewart said. “There’s no technology you can use in the tar sands that can fix the problem…the only way to fix it is that carbon has to stay in the ground.”

“I have sympathy for that myself,” Black said when asked for his response to Stewart’s quote.  “But it’s not feasible today to do away with oil…so we have to be pragmatic about this. We have to move from where we are today to a different place in time.”

“Before we knew about climate change,” Stewart said, “fossil fuels had greatly improved the quality of life, but now they’re putting all of those improvements at risk. What people need is energy, not oil, and we need to make that shift.”

“It’s a worry for everybody,” Black said, “because CO2 emissions are ramping up, not ramping down.”

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Media swag from our friends at Trans Mountain Pipeline

swag from our friends at Trans Mountain Pipeline
swag from our friends at Trans Mountain Pipeline
media swag from Trans Mountain Pipeline put into context
media swag from Trans Mountain Pipeline put into context

The Rocky Mountain Goat office got a media package from their friends in the Trans Mountain Pipeline media team last week.  A letter explaining how they’re making it easier for media to access information accompanied three sets of nifty sunglasses (made, probably, from petroleum products as most plastics are).

 

I haven’t been able to bring myself to wear these shades yet, despite needing a pair and having to constantly squint against the bright sun reflecting off the glaciers and snow-peaked mountains.  As I pondered the appropriate context to receive this gift in, another story came to mind.

 

Recently, the newly hired associate editor of RMG news received an email from the Trans Morgan public engagement team. She was a select invite to attend an information gathering session at the local Best Western. Clad in matching green velvet blazers, the lucky 12 invitees were fed a buffet dinner, with desert, before being asked for their input.  The associate editor wrote an editorial on the meeting, noting that any information they asked for was framed for them in appropriate forms of response.  One of the TM employees at the meeting confirmed that what they were looking for was “categorical comments” to provide “high level information” to those with a vested interest in the pipeline project.

 

And then it hit me. The perfect context to receive this gift in was to produce images like the one on this post.  My only lament is that I couldn’t find a fresher, steamier pile of shit.

Cougar stare-down in Valemount ends peacefully

Leath-Anne Kettle is still in disbelief after a 20-minute run-in with a cougar in Valemount last Tuesday May 28th.

“It’s one of those surreal things, when you don’t really believe it’s happening,” Kettle said.

She was walking up Dogwood Street from 17th Avenue just after 9pm when the cougar crossed the road about 20 feet in front of her. A children’s playground and baseball park, John Osadchuck Diamond, is just up the street from where Kettle encountered the cougar.

“It just sat down and stared at me,” she said. The stare-off lasted about 20 minutes, Kettle said. “I was scared at first, but then I calmed down.”

Kettle said she eventually called a friend who drove over to meet her. The approaching car scared off the cougar.

The Prince George Conservation Officer did not return calls from The Goat, but the BC Ministry of Environment’s Conservation Officer Service website offers the following information on cougar encounters:

Stay calm. Sudden movements can scare the cougar into attacking. Back away slowly and make yourself as large as possible. Do not run.

If a cougar shows interest in you, react aggressively. Maintain eye contact; show your teeth, growl. Arm yourself with weapons (e.g. sticks, stones) .

If a cougar attacks, fight back. Convince the cougar you are not helpless but a formidable prey choice. Aim for the eyes and the face, if it comes down to an attack.

Let neighbours know, and be aware of pets that may have gone missing: a sure sign that a cougar is making use of your neighbourhood.

Cougars seem to be attracted to the loud noises and erratic movement of children.

Although cougar encounters can be terrifying, Kettle said it’s important not to get scared.

“I’m not scared now or anything,” she said. “If I let that scare me, I’d never go anywhere.”

That said, it’s smart to be prepared and to take precautions.

For more information visit the Conservation Officer Service’s website at http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/cos/index.htm.

The cat came back (more cougar sightings in Valemount)

“There’s that cat again,” Braden Hutchins said when he saw a cougar for the second time on June 6.

It was around 6:30pm and he was standing with a group of people on the deck of the Kenkel’s ranch on Cranberry Lake Road.

The cougar was a few hundred yards away, across a field and crossing the road, going in the opposite direction from the group.

Hutchins had seen a cougar earlier in the day, only a few properties away from the Kenkel’s lot, while driving on Pine Road, around 2:30pm.

“The first thing I did was call the neighbours to let them know,” said Riette Kenkel, also standing on the deck at the time of the sighting.

Todd Hunter, a Prince George conservation officer who oversees the Robson Valley said there have been no reports of abnormal or offending behaviour from any cougars, but they are monitoring the area.

“Offending or abnormal behaviour would mean walking down a main street in the middle of the day, going from house to house, or repeatedly coming into town,” he said.

Hunter said at this point he has only received third party information.

“We need people who actually witness the event to report it, to substantiate allegations. Third party information doesn’t give us adequate information to respond.”

Hunter said cougars will follow the path of least resistance, following ATV or snowmobile trails through the woods. Cougar sightings are more frequent in the winter months, Hunter said, when food is scarce. Hunter stressed the need for people to report sightings to aid in his monitoring.

To report a sighting, call the Prince George Conservation Services Office at 1-877-952-7277.

maison mayor, chez valemount

I didn’t know before getting to Valemount that I’d be living with the mayor. In fact, I might be living with the premiere power couple of the village, since his partner, my boss, is the editor/publisher of a local newspaper. I live in their basement.

But the term ‘power couple’ seems out of place in this mountainous village of some 1000 inhabitants (“on a good day,” one local said to me), and especially in reference to my two new roommates. Since getting here last Sunday, I’ve discerned a down-to-earth, genuine passion they both have for the well-being of this village. They’re highly motivated people who, thankfully, dispelled any premonitory fears I had of this place being an ultra-conservative, out-of-touch backwoods community embodying more of the clichéd Albertan smug prudishness (heartland of the Conservatives, oil money and home to more pickup trucks than people) than the equally unfair ultra-liberal, hippie, pot-loving BC cliché. Not to say the rest of the town can be judged by these two; but that remains to be seen.

There’s a directness to life inherent in a small town like this. I attended a town meeting at the local high school a few days ago, where the principal was holding an information session to quell parents’ fears on the future of the school. Rumors and panic were being fanned by news of a new model involving fewer teachers and more computer-assisted classes necessary for the next school year because of rapidly declining enrollment. In the last five years enrollment has halved and next year the impressive, new building will be home to only 70 students, despite a capacity for over 300. This decline in enrollment is in line with the decline of the general population since the lumber mill – providing 200 of the best-paid jobs in town, according to the mayor – closed some six years ago. It is a very uncertain time in the life of Valemount Village.

“People who worry tend to express that worry as fact,” the principal told the school auditorium, half full with some 40-50 citizens, “and as it goes from person to person things get out of control.” But he acknowledged that the past few years had been tough on the school, and they had exhausted their savings in compensating for low enrollment. They had also exhausted their funding and grant options, so change was imminent and necessary. “Going after more money is like…”, the principal paused, struggling to find the right words, “…is like asking for champagne on a beer budget.” Not sure those were the right words to assuage the concerns of parents.

But the directness to life suggested by a town meeting of this sort was illusory, I thought. The principal’s presentation was unnecessarily long and tedious, and behind his rhetoric of “this is our collective problem and we need to, collectively, find a solution” was a predetermined objective and solution. Sounding more like a politician or a businessman, the principal had already decided on a new model and was only allowing parents to feel involved, rather than allow them to participate directly. Slide after slide of stats and academic research suggested this gathering was a shareholders meeting, and the principal, like a CEO, was doing what he could to assure the shareholders—the parents—that he had a confident, steady hand on the rudder, despite the turbulent times.

At the start of the Q&A period, the mayor stood up and thanked the principal for holding the meeting, acknowledging that he could have simply steamrolled ahead with his plans without holding any public consultation. And that’s true. But when nearly every sizeable community in this country has been incorporated (that is, made into a corporation), where they mayor’s alternate title is CEO, the structures of a business pervade all levels of local government. The “spirit” of a place, the cohesiveness of a community, the identity of a people is necessarily limited by what the rational structures of a business model can allow.

The principal spoke of the need to look squarely in the mirror, to identify the current situation. “But if we start building resorts, attracting people, who knows,” he said. And indeed the future of this town seems to be staked on tourism, especially a holiday glacier destination designed by a prominent Vancouver developer. But what control will the community have over these plans that will surely redefine the village? What control can they have in the ultra-corporate environs of Canada? That too remains to be seen.

one night in edmonton

It’s 1:30am, Edmonton time, 3:30am Toronto time. I’m kinda delusional and confused with fatigue and too much sunlight. The sun didn’t set until just before 10pm here in Edmonton, which means I had some 16 hours of sunlight today, with my flight. There’s nothing quite like the haggard feeling — an itch that starts in the retina and reaches back, unwanted tickling, into the cranial cavity — from too much sun. Like a corrosive hairball that won’t budge.

One Night in Edmonton.

Whyte Avenue, Edmonton, May 18, 2013. 11:30pm-12:30am.

Crowded sidewalks, loud people spewed out from dark doorways of bars, clubs. Drunk, young, sexually charged. The bright and neon lights matching the gaudiness of sexual energy.  Flesh, tight clothes, rank pheremones buzzing viscerally through the din of constant cat calls and blatant ogling. An obvious terrain of machismo – big trucks, motorocycles, muscle shirts and lack of shame or respect or restriction of the male sex drive pervades.

12:30am: “Now we just gotta find two broads who’ll put out,” one young, passing  guy says to another, a near-clone.  His Hawaiian shirt is fully open and he has a ridiculous bounce in his step.

“Aw man, that girl, the bitch, she called me at 4am yesterday…ha!ha! What do you think she wanted? She wanted me to fuck her. ‘Are you busy,’ she said. Ha! Ha!” His laugh is metallic, punched into the air.

12:00am: I was getting a kebab and a disheveled “clubbing girl” – short skirt, skampy top, elongated heels, but too much fatty flesh billowing and bunching out to pass it off, despite her fake-tanned complexion – burst into the small store and says, slurs, shouts,  “Can I use your phone?! I’ll fucking pay you, just, can I use your phone?!” Her voice has a false tone of desperation, shrill. She’s pleading/demanding, but it’s for something selfishly arbitrary, it seems… a lost cell phone, maybe. A booty call. Something to restore her sense of self worth.

“What?…No”, the 30-something year old Kebab man stammers. “No, uh, the battery’s dead, you can’t use.” He’s obviously lying, looking at me apologetically, but with conviction: she’s crazy and rude, right? his look says. His damning judgement forces me into his fold.

“Fine, then fuck you!” the girl blurts, not looking at the Kebab man, but rummaging desperately, with jerky, imprecise movements in an oversized designer knock-off purse. I imagine her pulling out some shamelessly vibrant lip stick and smearing it all over her face…everywhere but her lips.  Her flabby form is out the door before her rummaging is done so that the last we see of her is an arm, seemingly disconnected from a body, as though seeking emancipation from her body, grabbing blindly, submerged to the elbow in the bag that she had plunked on the kebab counter when she first made her graceless entrance.

“Bitch, she should learn some respect,” the Kebab man says after she leaves. I feel a dull, detached discomfort.

11:30pm

As soon as I left the hostel, two young men accosted me on the side street.  “Hey, do you have a musical instrument?” one slurred, a brunette with short hair (can men be called brunettes?), thin, attractive, with his pants falling below his waist line. Humbert Humbert  peeps into my mind.  “Do you want a beer?” the other one asked before I could answer.

“Uh, yeah, I’d love a beer.” I said.

“Aw, guy, we’re doing this scavenger hunt, my girlfriend and her friends against us.”
“I don’t have a musical instrument,” I said. “cheers”

“Naw, you gotta take the cap off first, take a sip, then cheers,” the other said seriously, with a hint of religiosity.

“What can this dude help us with?” the brunette asks the other.

“What else is on our list?”

“Uh, a pyramid, uh..”

“Aw, guy, he can help us with that!” He turns to me. “Can you help us with that? We gotta build a human pyramid with six people..”

I look down at the beer in my hand, resenting its price.

“Um, sure, I guess.”

They beckon to a passing a group of guys on the main street, a half block away.  They’re drunk too, of course, and loud and over excited.

They start forming the pyramid.  I hestitate, and so does another guy.

“You better get in there,” he says to me. He’s muscle-bound, tall, curly haired. His shirt is tight enough to see not just nipple but areola, skin pores (really, areola?).  I eye his physique and say, “You can’t weigh much less than me, you get in”, comparing the weight of his muscle to the weight of my love handles.

“I weigh 400 lbs,” he says, smirking. He’s shy and hesitant compared to the rest, and despite wearing the Whyte Ave uniform.

After the picture, there’s general shouting conversation, aggressive aimlessness. “Thanks for the beer,” I say, not caring if anyone hears me, “Have a good night,” and walk down Whyte Ave.