Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The West Coast Tar Sands Invasion

with 6 comments

I am reproducing below the text of a press release received this morning from The Natural Resources Defense Council and Forest Ethics. It seems to me to be written for the US market, but no doubt there will also be a version seen on Canadian media. The Press Release contains a link to the NRDC web page and from there to 21 page PDF report with 216 citations.   This illustrates what they are concerned about.

West Coast Tar Sands Threat

West Coast Tar Sands Threat

I did not draw this map of course. I would have included the BC/Alaska border, the Chevron refinery in Burnaby and labelled the TransMountain pipeline as a proposed expansion.  

The local opposition is currently being concentrated on the risks of spills in the marine environment, due to recent events in English Bay. The report looks at broader implications. And the list of endorsements includes many familiar logos

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.29.34 PM


New Tar Sands Industry Plans Threaten Millions, Putting Hundreds of Communities, Waterways, and Natural Landmarks at Risk

SACRAMENTO (April 28, 2015) – The Pacific coast faces a looming health, climate, and environmental crisis posed by an influx of tar sands fuel from oil interests in Alberta, Canada, according to new analysis released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), NextGen Climate America, ForestEthics, and a coalition of 27 partner organizations. The tar sands industry’s long term goal to triple production will require flooding both Gulf and West Coast heavy crude refineries with tar sands crude in coming decades. The increased transport of tar sands by rail, pipeline, barge, and ocean tankers will threaten the water and air quality of hundreds of communities, heighten the risk of tar sands oil spills and explosions, and reverse decades of public health, energy, and climate successes from California to British Columbia.

“The West Coast is about to fall victim to a tar sands invasion, unless our leaders choose to protect the health and safety of our communities and say no to Big Oil,” said Anthony Swift, Deputy-Director of NRDC’s Canada Project. “New tar sands proposals on the West Coast would increase the region’s carbon emissions and create more than two and a half times the carbon emissions of San Francisco. At a time when the nation is moving toward a clean energy future, there is no reason to welcome the dirtiest oil on the planet into our communities.”

The report, West Coast Tar Sands Invasion (, examines the spike in oil infrastructure, climate pollution, and public health risks that will result from oil industry proposals to expand tar sands refining and export capacity on the West Coast. The report finds that new oil industry proposals would result in the following:

* A greater than tenfold increase the amount of tar sands moving into and through the North American west coast by more than 1.7 million barrels per day

* Increase the region’s carbon pollution by up to 26 million metric tons – the equivalent of adding 5.5 million cars to the road

* Create1,500 miles of new pipelines in British Columbia

* Increase tanker and barge traffic twenty-five fold, from 80 to over 2,000 vessels along the Pacific west coast, on the Salish Sea, and down the Columbia River

* Increase tar sands at West Coast refineries by eight-fold, from 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 800,000 bpd by 2040

* Create a dozen new rail terminals that would significantly increase the region’s crude-by-rail traffic

* Place hundreds of communities, critical waterways and other environmentally-sensitive areas at risk of a tar sands oil spill

* Put fenceline communities and millions of West Coast residents at greater risk than ever to increased toxic air pollution, derailments, explosions, and other accidents that harm public health along with air and water quality

“Across North America people are saying no to the oil industry’s plans to move the world’s dirtiest, most explosive crude to the West Coast,” says Todd Paglia, ForestEthics executive director. “Tar sands threaten the safety of millions of Americans who live in the oil train blast zone, our drinking water supplies, and our coastlines. For oil companies with razor thin margins on this expensive oil, it’s safety last. But we are organized to fight and stop the oil trains, pipelines, and tankers that carry this explosive, toxic, unnecessary crude oil.”

The report also finds the proposed tar sands expansion puts iconic places such as Washington’s San Juan Islands, the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Sacramento Watershed, and the San Francisco Bay at risk to spills and accidents. Tar sands spills have proven to be more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it even more difficult to contain or recover should a spill occur in one of the hundreds of rivers, streams and critical watersheds across the West Coast vulnerable to expanded tar sands pipeline and rail traffic. A spill could devastate local economies, harm human health, kill critical species, damage First Nation territories, devastate pristine wilderness, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup.

The study had clear recommendations for decision-makers: States should aggressively pursue clean energy strategies that discourage dirty fuels like tar sands while decreasing the region’s dependence on oil, including policies that spur low carbon transportation and energy solutions such as broadened electric vehicle use and the development of clean fuels.

“As a nation we are at a critical juncture. We do not have to expose hard-working Americans to the health and safety risks of oil trains running through the heart of our communities,” said Tom Steyer, President of NextGen Climate America. “Instead, we can choose to support forward-thinking climate policies, like those being proposed by Governor Brown and the legislature here in California. Together we can build a safer, cleaner, healthier and more prosperous energy future – one that does not depend on tar sands and other dirty fossil fuels.”

Additionally, decision-makers must reject new major tar sands infrastructure projects and ensure all proposed fossil fuel infrastructure go through a thorough public health and environmental review process. State and federal regulators should enact safety, spill response, and air pollution standards that ensure the risk of a tar sands spills is eliminated, the public is safeguarded from derailments, and communities are protected from toxic refinery emissions.

“Dirty crude needs to stay in the ground, and we need to protect our communities and our planet from increases in carbon emissions and from these dangerous projects that are being proposed by the oil industry,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California Program Director at Communities for a Better Environment. “Environmental justice communities from Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area to Wilmington in Los Angeles have been put in harm’s way for too long, and we are united to fight against this injustice towards creating meaningful and lasting solutions. We need a just transition away from fossil fuels and aggressive investments in a new thriving inclusive clean energy economy.”

Written by Stephen Rees

April 28, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Posted in energy, Environment

Tagged with

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I misinterpreted the headline: by “tar sands invasion” I thought it meant the allegorical “invasion” of laid-off tar sands workers coming to, some returning to, BC in search of jobs. Anecdotally, I spotted a promotional deal for a hot water heater —it was such a good deal, I thought it had to be promotional—which I happened to need. I’ve been out of the picture for a couple of years, last time involved in construction, during which there was a housing boom in the Comox Valley, and one could scarcely find electricians and plumbers, all of them swamped with work. But, as the water tank guy explained when he arrived punctually for the installation, work has been getting hard to come by these days (hence his promotional offer) because so many fitters were returning to the Valley desperately looking for earnings with which to cover big mortgages and truck payments in Fort Mac—some living, as the tank guy elaborated, in their parents’ basements and taking any job they can get, and for greatly reduced rates (cash under the table). I heard this comment a few times more from friends and acquaintances around the Valley.

    It makes sense that these laid-off workers would be desperate to cover big debts: they assumed them when they were making big money and they incorrectly presumed the gravy would never stop. Who could have predicted the tar sand’s demise?

    I mention this to hopefully illuminate another aspect of the tar sands phenomenon, one experienced by laid-off workers, and by legitimate (ie., registered, taxpaying companies with above-board payrolls) enterprises who are getting bumped by refugees from Albetar. Doubtlessly some of these will be voting in their BC refuges—although it’s prejudicial to stereotype them as tar sand supporters of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

    I always figured half the problem with the tar sands is the head-off rate of development, ignoring every criticism—except maybe on ducks— polluting downstream communities and air around the globe. Slowing it down—by way of market forces—has its own negative effect too. In each case, shortsightedness is featured, and in no case is the resource husbanded for future use when, hopefully, it will be used in a safe way. The profiteering model isn’t working for anybody, not even tar sands proponents.

    Scotty on Denman

    April 29, 2015 at 1:09 pm

  2. That may explain something I heard yesterday. Our condo needs some work done and put out an RFP. The response was far greater than anticipated. I had expected that with all the new build going on all around us that contractors would be hard to find. Not so, apparently.

    Stephen Rees

    April 29, 2015 at 1:14 pm

  3. More addenda: there is a refinery in Prince George and the ‘proposed’ rail line was built before the 1st World War.

    Steve Cooley

    April 29, 2015 at 1:47 pm

  4. There are two potentially major influences on the flow of oil out of Alberta.

    One is the unheard of surge of support for the NDP only five days before the election. They have the majority of the popular vote very late in the campaign, but of course that won’t likely hold in the number of seats because their support is concentrated mostly in Edmonton seats. However, they are neck and neck and neck with the two right wing parties in Calgary and one cannot discount the possibility that they could benefit from vote splitting there. The pragmatists are saying there could be a minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power for the first time in living memory in that province. There is an outside chance that they could form a majority government. Having lived there during my youth, I find that absolutely astounding.

    According to their platform the NDP will push for greater value-added benefits (translation: more refining activity at home, less export of raw resources, diversification of energy into more wind, etc.) and higher royalties. Currently, oil companies pay only about 2% on the export of diluted bitumen from the tar sands. It’s the classic Canadian Way: export jobs without giving a fig about the environmental externalities and economic consequences. Alberta has been allowed to get away with that through political donations to pliable parties who write compliable laws, mostly the PCs. To refine the bitumen at home means creating thousands of jobs in upgrading the tar first into synthetic crude, and thousands more again in new refineries to make finished products (gasoline, diesel, etc.). The royalties charged on refined products is about 25%.

    I don’t see any government shutting down the tar sands, not even the NDP. But this party is far, far less beholden to Big Oil than the others and could very well slow down the flow while creating more jobs, diversifying into value-added components, and earning higher royalties, perhaps enough to take a breath and fund more public transit and develop green energy alternatives to their coal-fired power, and start decreasing Alberta’s massive carbon footprint.

    In my view there is a very significant possibility that Enbridge Northern Gateway will officially die and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain will be reduced in scope with the NDP acting as a major influence on Alberta politics, at least for a couple of political cycles if they prove they can lead. Either way this will result in fewer than planned tankers on our coast.

    The other influence would be the world price of oil. It’s now creeping back up toward the tar sands break even point, but the economy is quite tenuous and susceptible to reacting to price instability. There is a floor and a ceiling in prices that relate directly to the flow, and I suggest they are about $80 and $150 a barrel respectively. The fact that cheap conventional oil production has already peaked, and the US shale production is about to peak after the current slump ends, means that a shaky economy will continue as the prices continue their roller coaster track. Why Big Oil and the governments they influence haven’t started to deal with this (i.e. to diversify) and develop policy coupled with limiting emissions boggles the mind.


    April 30, 2015 at 1:01 pm

  5. The Alberta election is now over. With an NDP majority government, it was one for the history books. A 10.0 political earthquake that will resonate across the country.

    I believe the Enbridge Northern gateway project can be erased from the map above, as the new NDP premier of Alberta is on record as not supporting it or Keystone. That, and the nearly insurmountable challenges (aboriginal, environmental, geographical, navigational, legal), tips the balance I believe toward Rejection, with a capital R. It’s now time to resolve the land claims once and for all, and to make the Great Bear Rainforest into a national park in perpetuity.

    Rachel Notley ran on an economic diversification platform, and now there is the possibility that transporting raw bitumen (well, slightly diluted) west to Asian refineries at a royalty rate of only 2% will be increasingly resisted from the highest office in the Alberta government in favour of refining it at home and transporting finished products to eastern Canada at a 25% royalty rate. Big Oil CEOs do not own the NDP as they did successive conservative governments, so it matters not a lot what they think about that. There is the possibility that these factors will result in less oil being moved with more economic benefits to society and revenue for government, considering all the multipliers. This is all theoretical as it will take at least two more election cycles to build upgraders and refineries.

    If it works out, then they will have the revenue to shut down their coal power plants, fund renewable power and build public transit, all of which will help reduce Alberta’s monstrous carbon footprint.

    Shutting down the tar sands is not on any politician’s playlist, but three things will certainly affect production: (1) the world price of oil, either too high or too low and a decrease in production will result with some operations closing; (2) carbon pricing, which is a subset of (1) with the exception that Alberta itself may now institute it in cooperation with other provinces, whether that’s cap and trade or preferably a simple carbon tax remains to be seen; and (3) decreased consumer demand from the implementation of conservation measures, decentralized renewables (e.g. rooftop solar), urban transit with appropriate zoning measures, and regional and national electrified transportation with a trans-Canadian smart grid.

    The election of the Alberta NDP is a true game changer.


    May 7, 2015 at 2:33 pm

  6. Personally I’m trying to be cautious in outlook over the NDP victory in Alberta, but I can’t help thinking that the Federal election will occur during a timeframe where Notley’s government should still be enjoying a honeymoon with the electorate.

    Interesting times, indeed.


    May 8, 2015 at 9:19 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: