Blair King: Normally, the finer points of oil chemistry aren’t at issue. But when they’re misrepresented to further a narrative, we have a problem.
In my last post, I presented details of how a lack of expertise led to a misrepresentation of the health risks of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project. (See my post on the Trans Mountain Sumas Pump Station spill for another example.)
The day after I published, I was sent a link to yet another video that fails the chemistry smell test. This one is being distributed by The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust initiative with the particularly unsubtle title:
I watched the video and was truly impressed by how much pure chemical wrongness they were able to compress into just two minutes.
The video starts with ominous music and a quote from the BC government on TMX:
The BC Government says Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline and tanker project should not move forward until the “scientific uncertainties” of diluted bitumen (dilbit) are studied further.
Nothing instills confidence like not being able to find a quote that acknowledges that the TMX project is no longer owned by Kinder Morgan. The video then goes on to show lots of messy bitumen with an ominous voiceover that says:
When you wash the sand out of the tar sand in Fort McMurray, you get bitumen and it is tar.
Okay, I could have forgiven referring to the oil sands as “tar sands.” But seriously, if you present a video titled “What is diluted bitumen”, the least you can do is understand the chemistry of bitumen.
Bituminous sands consist of a combination of sand and bituminous oils, which are a type of heavy crude oil. As I discuss in a previous post, there is no tar in bitumen. This is not some pedantic argument, but simple chemistry.
Tar is not a naturally occurring geologic product. You cannot drill a well to get tar. Tar is a distillation product obtained by the high-temperature decomposition of wood products or coal. So when I heard their expert claim raw bitumen was “tar,” I knew I wasn’t dealing with anyone informed about hydrocarbon chemistry.
The next clip introduces their expert on diluted bitumen, who is nothing of the sort. The video presents him as having “worked for 50 years in Alberta’s oil industry.” Digging a bit deeper, one discovers via his profile in Common Ground that:
Steve Bramwell is a retired oil sands worker and a 50 year member of International Electrical Workers Union Local 424, Edmonton.
The chemical expert in this video is an industrial electrician.
Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised they couldn’t find an expert in petroleum chemistry to talk about diluted bitumen. If they had one, the video would never have been released in the first place; an expert would have explained their errors before the video left production.
Not being aware of Steve, I looked him up. He appears to have been featured regularly in activist social media posts about the pipeline. I found another video of him being interviewed by Ben West near the Fraser River titled: Alberta Oil Industry Insider on the Dangers of Kinder Morgan and Diluted Bitumen. It’s amusing that he is presented as an “insider,” given how much basic information he gets wrong.
He claims there are videos all over YouTube that apparently show dilbit explosions. He makes a special note of discussing one in London, England. For the life of me I can’t remember a dilbit explosion video from London, and a brief search of YouTube failed to uncover said video. The easiest way to know these videos don’t actually exist is the producers couldn’t find any dilbit explosions to feature in this very presentation.
Steve goes on to explain that in order to dilute bitumen (to create dilbit) they add a natural gas condensate that is “toxic and explosive.”
Let’s stop here for a second. Petroleum hydrocarbon mixtures are indeed toxic; that is the nature of the product. We don’t buy gasoline because it is a nutritious drink to go along with our morning toast instead of orange juice; but because it’s explosive and rich in important chemical components necessary for our industrial society. Saying oil is toxic is like saying the sun is bright.
Steve then goes on to inform us that “hexane” is a component of condensate and that hexane is “seven times more explosive than gasoline” and that “you need full hazmat to deal with this stuff.”
Sounds pretty scary. The only problem is that hexane is found in all sorts of hydrocarbon mixtures. Steve is correct in that total hexanes make up about 3.88% of the mixture by mass for Western Canada Dilbit. But he appears unaware of the fun fact, that n-hexane (only one of the hexanes observed in gasoline) makes up approximately 3% of gasoline’s volume by mass.
Does Steve mean to say that the hexane in dilbit is seven times more explosive than the approximate same mass of hexane in gasoline? If so, that would be false.
Does he mean that dilbit is seven times more volatile than gasoline? That would also be false.
However, if Steve is comparing the hexane in dilbit to the bulk properties of gasoline – without acknowledging that gasoline has virtually the same hexane composition as dilbit – then Steve is either being intellectually dishonest or doesn’t understand hydrocarbon chemistry. I’m guessing the latter.
The truth is dilbit is about as volatile as other crude oil mixtures shipped around the planet, and these mixtures are much less explosive than most hydrocarbon gases or refined fuels.
As for the suggestion that you need a full hazmat suit when you deal with a dilbit spill? The truth is you should wear a full hazmat suit whenever you deal with any large hydrocarbon spill.
Aren’t we glad they chose to rely on a certified electrician instead of a chemist to provide their chemical facts?
The video then presents an excerpt from the 2016 National Academies of Science (NAS) report, but the problem is that report is out of date. Since then, the Canadian government has spent millions of dollars studying dilbit as I describe in this blog post.
Steve then makes another incorrect statement about what happens when a spill hits a river. Once again, we know a lot about what happens when dilbit spills in water. Steve’s version is mostly wrong.
The video then does a few scare shots of bitumen before cutting to an interview:
Ben West: The incident that happened in 2007 in Burnaby that was conventional oil?
Steve: That was conventional oil, there was not a lot of explosive gases in that. Luckily it didn’t catch fire.
Here is the formal spill report for the Burrard Inlet spill. As it details, the material spilled in that event was “Albian heavy synthetic crude oil“. As described at Crude Monitor: “Albian Heavy Synthetic (AHS) is a partially upgraded dilbit produced from the Scotford Upgrader.”
Put simply, the material spilled was not conventional oil, but a grade of dilbit. So much for that “fact”.
The video then takes a particularly impressive turn, saying “Oil & Gas are dangerous enough” and showing a bunch of disaster porn with burning oil & gas facilities, none of which involve dilbit. Presumably this was how they addressed the dearth of videos of dilbit explosions and fires. It’s almost as if dilbit is not particularly flammable, and in the decades of moving it across the continent there hasn’t been a spectacular fire to feature in their videos.
(I can’t help but note their picture at 1:37, showing a worker dealing with a spill in a hardhat and waders – which runs counter to their earlier claim you need full hazmat suit. They really do need to pick a lane.)
The video ends with a well-worn line:
Why would we take on more risk, when we have safer alternatives?
This is accompanied by images of solar panels, wind turbines and an electric train. This ignores the simple fact that wind- and solar-derived electricity do not represent an alternative to liquid fuels for most heavy oil uses. As presented in this research paper from Science there are simply too many parts of our economy dependent on fossil fuels.
In 2014, difficult-to-eliminate emissions related to aviation, long-distance transportation, and shipping; structural materials; and highly reliable electricity totaled ~9.2 Gt CO2, or 27% of global CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel and industrial sources. That doesn’t even consider the role of heavy oil in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical industries and in building and maintain roadways.
Put simply, the alternatives they present are nothing of the sort. For the foreseeable future we will need heavy oils to keep our economy functioning.
Amusingly enough, having written this entire piece from scratch, I can almost completely crib my conclusion from my last post to finish this one off. As I wrote “…the video is fatally flawed and should be given no weight in public policy debates about the TMX. That no one has highlighted these flaws before me is simply a testament to the fact that not enough experienced chemists have allowed themselves to be drawn into these regulatory and policy discussions.”
That being said, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that when your topic is chemistry, it doesn’t hurt to pass the information by a chemist.
Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley on evidence-based environmental decision-making.
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