GUEST VIEW: David Black speaks on dangers of marine oil shipping

Black Press chairman David Black weighs in on dangers of diluted bitumen in the Pacific Ocean.

My name is David Black.  I am the majority owner of Black Press, the company that owns this newspaper.  I worry about the impact of a bitumen spill on our coast so for the last two years I have spent a great deal of time studying oil refineries, oil pipelines and tankers.

Bitumen, even if it is diluted, does not float in sea water if there is sediment present. Since there is an abundance of sediment along the BC coast, the bitumen will sink rapidly and there will be little chance of recovering any of it if there is a spill.  Refining bitumen before it is loaded into tankers solves this problem because refined fuels float and evaporate.

There is a great deal of misinformation being disseminated about the threat to the coast.  For example, recently a senior executive at one of the big oil companies in Canada told me their official position is that bitumen doesn’t sink. That is nonsense.  The Federal government published a thorough study on November 30 2013 proving that it does sink if there is sediment around.  The report is available online and I encourage you to access it.

Also, the BC Chamber of Shipping is currently running ads talking about the advantages of GPS-based navigation and saying spills such as Exxon Valdez would not be possible today because of double hulls and sub-divisions within tankers.  Again, this is nonsense.  Double hulls do not prevent hull fracture if there is a collision at speed, only if there is a gentle scrape.  As for the GPS claim, most marine accidents are caused by human inattention, not by a lack of knowledge about position.  All ships carried systems to indicate their location before GPS came along.  The Exxon Valdez crew could have glanced at their instruments to determine their location but they didn’t.  The crew on the Queen of the North also didn’t do so.  Marine disasters regularly occur and a quick search of the internet shows human error is usually the problem.  We can rest assured there will be more accidents in future.

Our research has shown us that modern pipelines can be built and operated safely.  Leak data is available for everyone to see on Canadian and US government websites and it proves recently constructed pipelines are not leaking.  Furthermore some of the best pipelining companies in the world are based in Canada.

Unfortunately we cannot have the same level of confidence about tankers which are the most critical component involving the shipment of oil because recovery is so difficult.  The grounding of the Exxon Valdez is usually held up as an example of how bad a spill at sea can be.

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However, a bitumen spill would be far worse.  Exxon Valdez carried light oil and lost 250,000 barrels (the equivalent of 17 Olympic swimming pools).  The light oil floated for the most part and could be washed off beaches.  Even so, after four years of work with up to 11,000 workers and 1,400 boats involved, less than 10% was recovered.  Bitumen is very different.  It would harden up on shore and much of it would sink to the bottom and be unrecoverable.  If we lost a tanker load, which is eight times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill, we would destroy the coast and fishery for hundreds of years.

Our grandchildren will not thank us if we destroy the coast on our watch. In my view, we should build a refinery to remove any chance of a bitumen spill at sea.  There are other benefits to be had from a state-of-the-art refinery:

There will be a major reduction in greenhouse gases.  The refinery will be built in Asia if not in Kitimat, and it will emit double the CO2 of our new Kitimat design. An Asian refinery will also generate 100 train cars a day of very dirty coke which will be subsequently burnt in the atmosphere to create power.  The Kitimat refinery will not result in the production of any coke. As we all live on one planet, it is far better for the global environment to build this refinery in Canada.

Construction of the refinery will create 6,000 jobs in BC for five years. Operations at the refinery will result in more permanent jobs than any project has ever created in BC with approximately 3,000 direct jobs. These will be skilled highly paid permanent jobs. These jobs will be available for the life of the refinery which should be in excess of 50 years. In addition there will be thousands of other jobs created in spinoff local petrochemical companies and in indirect employment throughout the province.

It is also our intention to build a safe pipeline and a fleet of new tankers, powered by LNG rather than Bunker C oil, to transport the refined products to Asia.  We have a solid business plan and as a consequence the money is available to build the greenest and most efficient refinery in the world.

Let me declare my biases.  I am for creating thousands of good permanent jobs in BC.  I am for creating billions of new tax dollars for government coffers.  I am for reducing the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. I am for building an oil pipeline that will never leak.  I am for building a new tanker fleet, owned by a BC company that cannot shirk its liability for a spill at sea, and that carries refined fuels that float and evaporate if spilled. I am against shipping bitumen in tankers.

David Black is the chairman and owner of Black Press, which owns many community newspapers, including the Northern Sentinel.