David Black's trial balloon took us a bit by surprise on Friday; there had been no previous indication that anyone seriously intended building a refinery in Kitimat. Once we heard from Mr. Black, it became clear that he's floating an idea with the greatest of good intent, but without a business case or a clear environmental rationale.
With all due respect to Mr. Black's business acumen, by his own admission he lacks experience in the oil patch. He also says he has had little to do with Enbridge and its financing arrangements. If he had investigated with them, he'd know that the refinery idea is a non-starter for the Chinese financiers.
Anacortes Refinery [photo: Walter Siegmund]
In a recent interview, Black advised that, if the industry doesn't take up his challenge and invest in a Kitimat refinery, he'll incorporate a company to raise the funds to do it himself. Along the line, he will no doubt have to do a little more due diligence and will probably come up with the same answer that Enbridge has: China wants unrefined diluted bitumen (dilbit). They can refine it more cheaply than we can. The U.S. has refineries, so to the extent that the product is headed south of the border, they, too, want dilbit.
As to the environmental rationale, Black says that he wants to deal with the safety issue and put those concerns to rest. The problem is that his idea doesn't do that. Regardless of the cargo, the risk of a marine spill doesn't change because that's a factor of geography, technology and human frailty combined. The consequences of a spill of refined product may vary—diesel is more likely to float and disperse widely on ocean currents, oiling shores and impacting the intertidal zone, while dilbit is more likely to sink over time and smother the ocean bottom—but they're still oil spills and they're still persistent and toxic to marine life. Certainly, some refined oils will evaporate, but not all—even the lighter diesels will leave behind a toxic legacy that will impact marine resources for generations to come.
And a refinery here in B.C. still requires the transportation of dilbit over 1,173 km of challenging terrain, crossing over 700 bodies of fresh water—like the Kalamazoo River.
The answer here is not to make an awful risk slightly less awful by changing which creatures are most affected by it. The answer is simply to stop transporting dilbit: It's dangerous and our best technology evidently can't protect us from the danger.
If it's a refinery you want to build, Mr. Black, please speak with Alberta.
Listen to Karen discuss the Kitimat oil refinery proposal on CKNW