Washington State officials have privately complained about a lack of information — vital for an oil spill response — on the ingredients of the diluent used to help Alberta bitumen flow through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline.
The data is crucial for spill response planning as the company proceeds with a proposed $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would triple the daily flow between Edmonton, Alta. and Burnaby, B.C. to 890,000 barrels. From the company’s Burnaby site, the oil would be shipped to Asian markets in tankers through Vancouver Harbour and then through the waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait shared by British Columbia and Washington State.
The pipeline company has suggested in responses to National Observer that it has been transparent enough, publishing a list of 52 products that Transport Canada has approved for the pipeline, as well as components listed on crudemonitor.ca for various types of oil. It has told Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) it would quickly disclose ingredients in the event of a spill.
Yet officials in Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources voiced grievous doubts in internal memos dated January 2017. “What is frustrating is ... tar sand oil manufacturers’ lack of transparency on what is used for diluents and those diluent properties, which in my mind (alludes) to dishonesty,” wrote the state’s oil spill response coordinator.
The memos were obtained by National Observer through a request under the state’s freedom-of-information law, asking about the potential environmental impacts of the Trans Mountain project. The officials who wrote the memos did not respond to requests for comment on Kinder Morgan’s responses to National Observer.
Bitumen petroleum is too thick to flow in a pipeline at ground temperature, so it needs to be thinned with a light, volatile petroleum product called diluent. In general, diluents are either mixtures of light hydrocarbons, synthetic crude oil, or both. Typically, diluted bitumen (or dilbit) is 70 to 80 per cent bitumen, and 20 to 30 per cent diluent.
Canada’s spill response regime “a couple of decades behind”
The federal government supports the Trans Mountain expansion and has pledged a new “world class” spill response regime. B.C.’s New Democratic Party Premier John Horgan has vowed to block Trans Mountain through “every means at his disposal” with his Green Party partners.
Despite the provincial government's opposition, Trans Mountain spokesperson Ali Hounsell told National Observer construction is proceeding this fall and “we congratulate” Horgan on his election win.
South of the border, worries date back to at least 2004, preceding Kinder Morgan’s expansion plan, when a study by the Washington State Department of Ecology concluded that a major oil spill would cost the state 165,000 jobs and US$10.8 billion in economic impacts.
State ecology officials in the spill response section wrote to the Washington State governor in 2013 that, “B.C. lacks authority over marine waters, and their federal regime is probably a couple of decades behind the system currently in place in Washington State. When it is spilled, we are concerned that dilbit oil may be considerably more toxic and damaging, and far more difficult to clean up, than conventional crude from Alaska.”
Hounsell of Trans Mountain told National Observer that detailed investigations by government researchers, academics and industry have found dilbit just as safe to transport as other types of crude oil. She cited a company fact sheet called, Mythbusting: The Three Most Common Misconceptions About Diluted Bitumen.
The January 2017 internal memos from Washington State Natural Resources officials express a very different view.
“There is definitely a need for full disclosure and transparency regarding the products used to create bitumen and other crude oil diluents and their properties,” wrote the department’s habitat stewardship specialist. “Policy makers have a long way to go to require (let alone enforce) adequate mitigation.”
The Washington State oil spill response coordinator expressed acceptance of the need for oil in the current economy, but added that “without unbiased research” governments cannot have an honest debate on many questions. Among the questions: "how fast the diluent will evaporate in real life conditions, how explosive is the air in an oil spill due to properties of diluent and how does this affect a response, how soon will the oil sink, how well will sinking oil be addressed if at all, how will sunken oil be tracked, what will be the impact of that oil on ecosystem(s), how will it be monitored and recorded, and how wil we gauge mitigation plans proposed to repair or at least compensate for damage?"
The documents connect the spill questions to the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The same oil spill response official asks, “Without these questions being answered to an exhaustive degree, how can the public be asked to accept these risks? ... How can we honestly say that we are ‘prepared’?
"The times of oil companies asking the public to trust them are over, as we still seek to understand the full implications of the BP oil spill.”
The official said those who propose "oil handling facilities" need to be held to "the highest bar": “The interest in all these projects will soon be invigorated and there will most likely be a push to build and seek answers later. We need to work together to hold proponents to answer these difficult questions before we concede to risks.”
Companies may hide behind commercial secrecy, officials said
The same official again raised the problem of commercial secrecy to a colleague:
“Decision makers do not have, nor seek, the level of information needed to make decisions based on cumulative impact review. Those that propose these projects provide the bare minimum and hide behind proprietary protection measures to keep discussion vague. Stovepiping allows for high-impact projects to move through review process even when clear significant harm is forecasted.” Stovepiping is a term used to describe the presentation of raw information without proper context.
Hounsell indicated Trans Mountain is transparent. “As you can see on the crudemonitor.ca website, there is a full listing of components for each type of synthetic, light and heavy crude products, and each varies.”
When National Observer asked for a list of diluent ingredients to be used in the Trans Mountain pipeline, Hounsell sent a link to a list on its website of the 52 products the government approved for the pipeline. These range from “super lights” such as regular gasoline and Peace River Condensate to diluted bitumen products such as Borealis Heavy Crude, Access Western Blend, Cold Lake Blend, and Seal Heavy, each with their own formula.
A spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada said data on the chemical properties of dilbit can be found in the public domain by Googling the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for diluted bitumen, and by reading chapter eight of the National Energy Board’s 553-page report on the Trans Mountain project. He also cited www.crudemonitor.ca.
“I think it's fair to say Kinder Morgan is being transparent enough with the products they will be shipping,” said Peter McCartney, climate campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, referring to B.C. cities with the same concerns about Trans Mountain. “Where cities may be running into trouble it might be that they are unable to figure out exactly what's coming through at any time.”
Trans Mountain disclosures incomplete, say environmental groups
Other Canadian environmental groups said disclosures about Trans Mountain product are incomplete.
“Crudemonitor does not separate out the constituents — so Cold Lake Blend, which is a diluted bitumen, does not have one content list for bitumen and one for diluent — it's just a single list for dilbit,” said Kate Logan, an independent toxicologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “Diluent acts differently from crude oil. For one thing, it weathers off quite fast because it’s so light.”
Keith Stewart, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaign, said in an email that “Kinder Morgan is obscuring the issue by saying that there are lists of things that could be in dilbit, but avoiding the issue of what precisely is in any given batch (and it will vary, depending on price and availability).”
Stewart added that concerns are about polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that are in dilbit: benzene (a carcinogen), toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene – and that it appears all dilbit would contain these compounds to varying levels. (Naphtha, butane, hexane, hydrogen sufide, sulfur and nitrogen have also been noted in dilbit.) “It's tough to say exactly what will be in the pipeline at any given time, which may be the cities' frustration.”
In its Gainford study, Trans Mountain provided PAH levels for two dilbit blends — Cold Lake and Access Western — and this data was summarized in the company report to the NEB. Logan counters that this data is inadequate because “these are just two of the dozens of products the pipeline is approved to carry, and again, there is no separate information for diluent and bitumen.”
Should trade secrets trump public health and safety?
The obtained Washington state officials' e-mails include a link to a recent study of the impacts on oceans of spilled bitumen and diluents.
“Even if we know the diluent contents, the quantity and formulas are still largely private,” said lawyer Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law. “This is a big problem with fracking also, where companies claim their information is proprietary. There is certainly a place for trade secrets, but to what extent does that trump public health and safety? And should governments override that?”
“I do think that more transparency on the exact constituents of dilbit would help (perhaps a range for each constituent), but to me all of the diluent is dangerous, for it's all flammable and volatile, even though the exact amount of benzene in it may vary,” said Angela Brooks-Wilson, a physiology professor at Simon Fraser University. “To have the properties that make it a thinner for the bitumen, the diluent must be made up of smaller molecules, which because they are smaller give it the properties of volatility and flammability.”
Trans Mountain did not respond to followup questions on the specific contents of diluent as separate from bitumen, and the lack of PAH data for diluents.
The NEB’s final report on Trans Mountain noted that Environment Canada recommended that Kinder Morgan commit to providing spill responders “a specific suite of test data for all types of hydrocarbon products to be shipped” — before shipping — to help them plan a good response.
The NEB overrode that advice because the company had committed to give those parties “timely information on the physical and chemical characteristics of any product spilled,” and it trains its own and external workers in spill response. The company also declined Environment Canada’s advice, because it was awaiting more research on the behavior of dilbit in water.
Specific diluent content typically not available to public
A 2015 U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report called Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines said specific content of diluents is typically not publicly available. "The individual selection of diluents varies depending on the desired outcome, the current cost of acquiring and transporting the diluent to the bitumen source, and other internal considerations of pipeline operators."
Does diluted bitumen differ importantly from other crude oils? In its submission to the NEB, Trans Mountain said that dilbit is “a stable, homogenous mixture that behaves similar to other natural crude oils when exposed to similar conditions and undergoes a weathering process."
By contrast, the National Academy of Sciences study said that many dilbit properties “are found to differ substantially from the other crude oils,” the key differences being the high density, viscosity and adhesion properties of the bitumen portion that affects how oil behaves in water under various weather conditions.
Trans Mountain told the NEB that the diluent and bitumen of dilbit should be considered as one blended product, not separately. But the NAS study disagrees, saying that after a spill, weather conditions alter the dilbit and “the net effect is a reversion toward properties of the initial bitumen.”
Governments have raised concerns about diluted bitumen secrecy before.
In July 2010, a pipeline operated by Enbridge burst and spilled over three million litres of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. After several days, the volatile hydrocarbon diluents evaporated, leaving the heavier bitumen to sink in the water. The spill cost over US$1.2 billion to clean up, with heavy environmental impacts. (In its website cited above, Transmountain calls it a “myth” that dilbit would sink in B.C. waters.)
Nine days before the Kalamazoo accident, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had warned that the proprietary nature of the diluent found in dilbit could complicate cleanup efforts. (The agency was commenting on the proposed Keystone XL dilbit pipeline.)
“Without more information on the chemical characteristics of the diluent or the synthetic crude, it is difficult to determine the fate and transport of any spilled oil in the aquatic environment,” EPA officials wrote. "For example, the chemical nature of diluent may have significant implications for response as it may negatively impact the efficacy of traditional floating oil spill response equipment or response strategies.”
At the NEB hearings on Trans Mountain's proposal, the City of Vancouver and others asserted that the evaporation of diluents, especially benzene, from a dilbit spill would be a health risk to spill responders. Kinder Morgan denied that in its 440-page final submission to the NEB, writing that critics supplied “misstated and misleading estimates about vapour concentrations (specifically, benzene) that are available for evaporation that may be encountered by people in the area.”
The BC NDP government declined to comment for now. BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said, “I concur with the Washington State memos that state that spill responders cannot adequately respond to a spill without knowing the ingredients or formula of the bitumen and diluents.”
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10:50 p.m. ET to correct that diluted bitumen was spilled into the Kalamazoo River following the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture.