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COMMENTARY · 10th January 2012
Merv Ritchie
Coles Notes is a phrase from years ago started when Coles book store produced short reviews on various topics usually for high school or college studies. This short essay then is a Coles Notes on the technical issues regarding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

There are only three aspects to this proposal involving Canada and Enbridge is only involved in one single component.

The first aspect is where the raw product, bitumen, is being produced, the Tarsands of northern Alberta.

The second aspect is the transportation of the product on land through the Coast Mountains to Kitimat.

The third aspect is the transportation of the product on the ocean via Douglas Channel and the North Pacific.

As the project crosses Provincial boundaries the plans required a Federal government review. Due to it being an energy project the National Energy Board (NEB) became involved. As it involved issues regarding the environment the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) was also an interested partner. The NEB and CEAA then jointly arranged a three person panel to consider the proposal by Enbridge and called it the Joint Review Panel (JRP). There role is to consider all the information and evidence they gather and make a recommendation to the Federal Government. The Federal Government is not bound by the recommendation of the JRP or the NEB and the CEAA.


THE PROPOSAL

Enbridge is only involved in the transportation of the product on land. Enbridge has proposed to build a 1,171 km 36 inch diameter pipeline called “Northern Gateway” to carry the product from the Tarsands of Alberta (the production facilities) to Kitimat. Kitimat is a small town on the shores of a long inlet called Douglas Channel, which opens to the Pacific Ocean at a location where a BC Ferry sank after running into one of many small Islands at the mouth of the Channel between Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte island) and the mainland of BC. They also plan to build a second 20 inch diameter pipeline to import a petroleum thinner very similar to white gas called ‘Condensate’. Presently condensate is already being imported into Kitimat at a site called Methanex and is shipped by rail tanker cars to Alberta by CN Rail.

Enbridge is not involved in the production of the product or the Ocean Tankers. Enbridge is solely a company that builds, owns and operates pipelines. Enbridge has nothing to do with Ocean Tankers or the production of the product therefore the JRP has determined it will not considering the Tarsands facilities or the Ocean Tankers in any part of their review of the application to build the pipeline. The JRP is only considering the safety of, and the economic value of, the construction of the pipelines.

Currently an identical pipeline has already been approved for the same route to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) and is being constructed and installed. The approval and acceptance of this LNG project may provide the JRP with irrefutable evidence of the viability and safety of the Enbridge proposal.

Virtually every First Nations community in Northwest BC as well as most in the rest of the Province have signed a document expressing their opposition to the Enbridge proposal. In September of 2010, at the Union of BC Municipalities (UNBC) Convention in Vancouver, an overwhelming majority of Municipal representatives voted in favour of a resolution put forward by the Village of Queen Charlottes to oppose both the Northern Gateway proposal by Enbridge and the transportation of Bitumen by tankers in the BC Northcoast waters.

THE PRODUCTION FACILITIES

The region of Northern Alberta where the product is being extracted was originally called the Tarsands as the soil under the trees and foliage was identical to tar mixed with sand. The useful bitumen material was first extracted in the 1930’s by steaming it out with water. This is the same method used today. Two distinctly different extraction processes are used; strip mining and underground piping recovery. Both use vast quantities of heated water. This method causes two contentious issues; the high use of valuable potable water and the waste product, a mix of water and tar residue contained in what is called “Tailings ponds”. There are dozens of international corporations working this land and form an alliance called CAPP (Canadian Alliance of Petroleum Producers).

Local communities and population centers complain of the loss of water in the ground and rivers. They also complain about the waste product from the tailings ponds leaking into the environment including the rivers. Sickness and cancer rates are significantly higher in locations affected by the production facilities.

Very little refining is performed except to remove the water from the bitumen after it is recovered. Sand remains in the final product for shipping and it has been determined to corrode the internal walls of a pipeline at a rate sixteen times greater than that of a fully refined product. When asked about refining the product prior to selling or shipping it the new premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, stated Alberta didn’t need any more jobs.

As the product is very thick and heavy (with sand as well), condensate needs to be added so it will flow easily in the pipelines. This is currently why condensate is being imported at Kitimat. It is added to the product which is currently being shipped to the southern USA.

If the product was fully refined in Alberta condensate would not be required to be imported. If a portion of the raw product was to be shipped, via pipelines to the southern USA, the condensate could be achieved from the onsite refining process.

Prototype facilities now applying for full production licences are utilizing heated condensate in place of water to extract the bitumen from the sand. This process, now being perfected, will reduce both the excessive use of water and the expanding tailings ponds. If pursued on a large scale this would require the importation of more condensate unless a refinery is constructed at the production facilities.

If a refinery was constructed in northern Alberta much of the concerns could be addressed. The export pipeline would be safer carrying a less corrosive product and a product less permanently damaging to the environment and a second import pipeline would not be required as the condensate would be produced on site at the production facilities.

Read More about the production facilities here.

THE PIPELINES TO AND FROM KITIMAT

This is the only part of the Tarsands production facilities involving Enbridge, the pipelines. It is also the only part of the project currently being considered by the JRP.

The proposed pipelines will be constructed partially in a region virtually completely uninhabited between Burns Lake and Kitimat. As ‘the crow flys’ this is approximately 200 kilometers and will involve the tunnelling through mountains.

The raw unrefined bitumen product being shipped from Alberta to Kitimat will need to be heated and thinned to be moved through the pipeline. The silica/sand remaining in the bitumen has been determined to be 16 times more corrosive than a refined product. The condensate does not need to be heated nor is it corrosive. Both pipelines will be pressurized and will be built along the same route as the proposed LNG (liquefied natural gas) currently being constructed to Kitimat from Northeast BC.

The Pipelines will end on the shore in Douglas Channel near to Kitimat at a tank farm holding the products for loading and unloading the Ocean tankers.

The major concerns expressed regarding the construction of these pipelines through these lands is the potential for a pipeline break and spillage. As the pipeline will cross hundreds of small and large waterways, which feed into other habitats any spill might affect numerous life sustaining environments. With the long distance of uninhabited territory a small leak might remain undetected for many months, particularly in the winter when the region is impassable. Another concern is the numerous geological disturbances such as large land and rock slides, which occur regularly and have previously broken existing natural gas pipelines. The proposal includes two tunnels to avoid land slides.

Unlike refined products this raw bitumen will not dissipate, float or evaporate over time. The product will sink to the bottom in water and stay where in stops moving on the ground.

TANKERS AND DOUGLAS CHANNEL

The tankers and the Ocean route are not being considered or evaluated by the National Energy Board’s review panel. Douglas Channel is a long protected waterway. At the mouth of the channel however is a series of small islands and rock out crops. Navigating around these islands requires numerous hard angle turns. Gill Island is one of the larger Islands and was struck by a BC passenger Ferry, which sank and remains on the sea floor today. Princess Royal Island is just South of the mouth of Douglas Channel. Local fishermen speak about how careful they need to be navigating this area in their vessels. Enbridge is stating there will be two large tug boats tethered to the tankers as the transit this region.

The tankers proposed are considered to be the largest in the world call ULCC’s. The construction of these, though “double hulled” are fabricated with steel much thinner and lighter than tankers made in the 1970’s. Experts in the Tanker industry inspecting the Exxon Valdez after it was torn open after hitting a rock outcrop described the shortness of the welds, the poor quality of construction materials and inadequate fabrication. Most do not realize the Exxon Valdez was first hit and leaked at a section of the hull which was double hulled.

Once the tanker exits the region of small islands at the mouth of Douglas Channel they will be sailing in the waters east of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Island) heading northwest. These waters are documented to be the most dangerous waters on the planet producing extreme weather conditions and waves referred to as “Rogue Waves” reaching up to and over 30 meters. In these conditions and under current tanker construction practices, design experts rate the stress life of a current tanker at only two passages during these severe winter conditions.

It is important to recognize what is referred to by the words “State of the Art”. Although electronics and navigation methods have improved significantly, the quality of tankers has decreased by the same factor. Currently no government or regulatory agency considering the Enbridge proposal is evaluating and determining this aspect of the project.

Read more on Tankers and the current construction practices by clicking here.