Insulting Alberta

In which I offend Canadian petro patriots

By Andrew Christie, Chapter Director

On November 5, New Times published my letter to the editor in which I wrote about the plan to bring tar sands crude oil, “one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the world,” to the Phillips 66 refinery in Nipomo. I noted “the health issues that would arise from the off-gassing of its high sulfur, lead, and benzene content as such trains traverse California.” That oil would likely hail from the Athabasca tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada.

That day, a message popped up on our office answering machine. A caller who declined to identify himself had something to say about my “letter to the editor regarding Phillips 66 expansion, which will include tar sands oil. Why don’t you guys wake up down there in California?! Your oil, with Bakersfield, with offshore, L.A., is way dirtier than any oil sands in Alberta. Why don’t ya look at your own back yard before you start pointing fingers at other people in other countries?! Wake up!”

This was followed by a few fumbling clunks and clicks and a sigh. As our anonymous irate phone calls go, it was charmingly reserved. And sure enough, a check of our interlocutor’s phone number confirmed the obvious: He’s a Canadian fella, a resident of Edmonton, Alberta.

He was in for a rough week. The next day, President Obama announced the Keystone XL pipeline would not be getting a permit. The decision by the Secretary of State noted that the pipeline “would facilitate the transportation to the United States of one of the dirtiest sources of fuel on the planet.”

Obama added, "Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America's energy security."

Later that day, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that “Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says she is disappointed that President Barack Obama called Alberta oil ‘dirty’ while rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline Friday. ‘It was not necessary to be quite so critical in the way they described our energy product,’ Notley told a news conference at the Alberta legislature.”  

For patriotic Albertans, apparently this is a thing. It’s considered impolite to remark on the dirtiness of their oil.

I don’t think anyone here had considered the issue of rudeness arising in the course of evaluating the environmental impacts of the proposed Phillips 66 oil train project. As far as Alberta’s concerned it seems, we’re in that delicate position of thinking about what to say when a proud mother introduces you to her really ugly baby.

So, as gently as I can, let me set aside for the moment the uniquely energy-intensive tar sands extraction and conversion process, which makes the level of greenhouse gas emissions for tar sands about 14 percent higher than that of conventional oil. In addition to that, the National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that “emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons estimated in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oil sands region are likely too low.” Specifically, they found that emissions were about a thousand times greater than previously believed, a finding which “implies that environmental concentrations in exposure-relevant media, such as air, water, and food, estimated using those emissions may also be too low.”

“It is concerning,” mused The Smithsonian in reporting the findings of the study, “that throughout decades of oil extraction in Athabasca, environmental impact assessments have dramatically underestimated the emission levels of a key air pollutant.” 

Tar sands crudes are chemically distinct from other crudes. How distinct? As our Delaware Chapter pointed out when faced with a tar sands oil-by-rail proposal, “Communities with tar sands refineries are associated with increased carbon, heavy metals, sulfur, lead, hydrogen sulfide and benzene compared to conventional oil refineries.”  In the refining process, a slew of toxic heavy metals are released into the environment, significantly different from what’s emitted during the refining of conventional crude, emissions that have been linked to prenatal brain damage and emphysema. 

Known rates of evaporation in transit make it possible to conservatively calculate how much of this stuff would be emitted by tank cars carrying this crude here from Canada. It adds up to huge amounts of fugitive emissions of these devastating chemicals and heavy metals, representing an acute health risk.

As The Smithsonian might say, it is concerning that the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Phillips 66 project omits – never mind dramatically underestimates – any analysis of the emission levels of virtually all these pollutants. 

So, Canada, let’s put it this way: You have such lovely oil, it would be a shame to separate the two of you. We couldn’t dream of parting you from it. Please, we insist: You keep it.

In the ground.