It’s not exactly a secret that the federally owned Trans Mountain has started to fill its freshly completed 1,150-kilometre pipeline from Edmonton’s refinery row to the Westridge Marine export terminal on Burrard Inlet in Metro Vancouver. But given its scale, its impact and the danger of its diluted bitumen content, the pipeline’s inauguration on April 30 was announced awfully quietly — and somewhat inaccurately.

This $34-billion infrastructure project is the most expensive in Canadian history and, other than COVID relief, it’s likely the nine-year-old Trudeau government’s priciest initiative. By comparison, the chart-topping Liberal/NDP Canadian Dental Care Program is predicted to cost just $4 billion a year and pharmacare $11.2 billion. Even the off-again, on-again purchase of new F35 fighter jets is budgeted at only $19 billion. Yet, on Trans Mountain launch day, there was no bumptious ribbon cutting or valve turning. While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith issued an uncharacteristically gracious news release “to thank the federal government for seeing this project through,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was nowhere around to bask in that gratitude. Nor were any Liberal ministers. It’s almost like they’re not proud of what they have done.

On the question of accuracy, everyone keeps saying this new pipeline will be used to transport “crude oil,” which the U.S. Energy Information Administration defines as, “a mixture of hydrocarbons that exists as a liquid in underground geologic formations and remains a liquid when brought to the surface.” But this Trans Mountain ‘expansion’ — which runs parallel to a smaller pipeline that started carrying conventional crude in 1956 — was designed and built to carry the massive output from the landlocked oil sands. It’s not conventional crude, but dilbit: diluted bitumen.

The ‘bitumen’ element in dilbit is obvious enough: it’s the brown or black tarry substance extracted from the oil sands. Bitumen is what Australians call asphalt, which gives you a pretty good sense of what it’s like: sulphurous sludge. Oilsands Magazine describes it as “generally non-marketable and non-pipelineable” – adding that it can be transported only in “heated railcars [or in] solid bitumen bricks.” To make it flow – i.e., through a pipeline – you have to dilute it, usually with synthetic crude oil (“very often, the most expensive crude you can buy”) or, more commonly, with natural gas condensate and sometimes naphtha.

If you want to know the exact contents of the diluent in any dilbit mix, you’re out of luck; oil companies treat it as proprietary information that they want to keep away from their competitors. But the stuff is not sweet. It generally includes hydrogen sulphide and any of a cocktail of pentanes, n-hexane, butanes, benzene and toluene. These are the kinds of chemicals that, in vanishingly small concentrations, can cause cancer, mutations, birth defects or, in slightly larger amounts (and getting straight to the point) death.

Diluent also makes the otherwise fairly inert bitumen highly explosive. Natural gas, which we often think of as the serious risk in this regard, is only explosive in atmospheric concentrations between five per cent and 15 per cent: at less than five per cent, there is not enough gas; at more than 15, there is not enough oxygen. But dilbit can explode in concentrations from 0.6 per cent to 44 per cent. Kinder Morgan, the pipeline’s original owner, was sufficiently concerned by this risk that, after municipal crews punctured its original pipeline in 2007, the company distributed a brochure in the Burnaby neighbourhood near the Trans Mountain tank farm, recommending that if anyone smelled a strong odor of petroleum or sulphur, they should, “Leave area immediately, on foot, and in an upwind direction.”

The brochure went on to say that residents should only call to report the suspected leak if they have access to a landline, because a cell phone, like a “keyless door entry” or a flashlight, is a possible ignition source. There was no mention of the risk of pulling on a staticky wool sweater.

Another risk is that, even after being diluted, dilbit is still sluggish. Regular crude oil flows through pipelines under roughly 600 pounds per square inch of pressure. Dilbit can require 1,400 psi, making leaks both more likely and more potentially catastrophic. In the 2007 leak, the oil sprayed over houses two blocks away.

Many of the foregoing details come from the 2016 report of the federal government’s Ministerial Panel for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, a document I know well because I was the note-taker, record-keeper and writer for that exercise.

Everyone keeps saying this new pipeline was built to carry crude oil, writes @RLittlemo. In actual fact, it carries the much more explosive diluted bitumen. #TMX #TransMountain #cdnpoli #bcpoli #EndFossilFinance #ableg #abpoli

And here I might make a more fulsome disclosure: long before Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) called — out of the blue — to invite me to be the sole note taker and report writer for the Ministerial Panel, I was personally opposed to the pipeline because of its inevitable climate effects.

As a journalist and freelance writer, I had received a similarly unsolicited call two decades earlier from David Hocking, a former Petro Canada vice-president who, in 1996, had taken the lead communications job at the David Suzuki Foundation. Hocking had seen my work and wondered if I would be interested in writing the Foundation’s first public education package on climate change.

I was very interested, not for what I knew about the topic, but because I needed the work. But after a month of studying the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I was better informed and freshly nervous. While the scientists behind that document were extraordinarily cautious in reporting the state of the climate threat, it seemed clear to me that humankind was hurtling toward a climatic disaster, an impression that has been sharpened every year since.

Seeking public opinion

Forty-four public meetings heard from 2,400 people and 650 direct presentations. Photo By: Shutterstock

So, in 2016, I told NRCan’s project lead, the late Gregg Dahl, that I had a strong and quite-public position on the pipeline. Dahl shrugged and said he wasn’t hiring me for my opinions and that he was confident that the three panelists (and a legion of editors in Ottawa) would be alert for any bias in the ultimate report.

But if the panelists and bureaucrats were prepared for what was to come, I was not. I was expecting the melodrama. I expected the belligerent meetings with people in Alberta assailing the panel for slowing down a great and necessary project and people in B.C., howling that the panelists were just providing political cover for a government that was bent on approving the pipeline anyway. As we convened 44 public meetings, greeted more than 2,400 Canadians, and listened to 650 direct presentations, I was expecting that the experience would hypercharge my sense of existential dread about climate change and our national plan to make it worse. But I wasn’t expecting that the process would make me directly and personally fearful.

It started in the Fraser Valley, after we had already been battered in Calgary, Edmonton, Jasper and Kamloops. In Chilliwack and Abbotsford, people started describing the dangers the pipeline posed, not just to fish and wildlife, but to people. The original pipeline – and now the new one, too – stretches across a series of shallow aquifers beside the Fraser River. These aquifers are the principal water source for hundreds of thousands of people – and for an agricultural industry that serves millions. A bad oil leak could poison this precious resource, and a dilbit blowout could be so much worse.

But things really got creepy when we got to Burnaby, where firefighters lined up to say how fearful they were about the dilbit threat. The Burnaby Fire Department reported that “many of the potential tank fire scenarios within the Trans Mountain Tank Farm facility would be inextinguishable due to lack of safe firefighting positions.”

First, you can’t pour water onto a dilbit blaze without causing a “boil over,” which a report from the U.K.-based ASK Consultants described thusly: “The steam being three orders of magnitude greater than that of originating water, virtually the entire contents of the tank are explosively ejected and immediately ignited by the surface fire, generating a massive fireball supplemented by widely broadcast drops of burning fuel.”

So, the Burnaby Fire Department’s plan is to stand back and let the tanks burn.

And yet, New Westminster Fire Chief Tim Armstrong said that when he pressed Kinder Morgan on its response plan, the company said only that it was prepared to fly in its expert team from Edmonton. On which Chief Armstrong commented: “That’s not an emergency response. That’s a remediation plan.”

The situation could be worse for the students and staff at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the residents of the adjacent UniverCity community on Burnaby Mountain, straight up the hill and accessible only by two roads that intersect immediately above the tank farm.

SFU’s Chief Safety Officer, Mark LaLonde, said the university’s plan – while awaiting the crack team from Edmonton – is to crowd everyone into the most air-tight campus buildings, turn off the HVAC and “shelter in place,” hoping that the toxic cloud disperses before the fire rages up to their doorstep.

Where the pipeline meets the sea

Advocates arguing against the pipeline worried about spills. Photo By: Shutterstock

The unsettling images continue downstream, where the pipeline meets the sea. The panel learned that other big ports tend to arrange the shipment of heavy, toxic, explosive materials at the harbour’s edge, reserving interior docks for the most valuable, least problematic cargo — say, high-end electronics.

But the Westridge terminal is located at the deepest part of the Port of Vancouver. The Aframax oil tankers have to cross under three bridges: the Lion’s Gate, the Ironworkers Memorial and the train bridge at Second Narrows — which is so shallow that the tankers can’t take on a full load. If they carry anything over 85 per cent of capacity, they risk running aground.

When presenter Brian Gunn of the organization Concerned Professional Engineers started talking about what might happen if one of those 100,000-metric-tonne tankers knocked a bridge off its footing, I was thinking that to be a pretty unlikely scenario. After all, bridges are tough. I have since watched a video of the Dali cargo ship knocking down the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, and I am considerably less confident.

There are, as well, the obvious threats — the ones I was expecting we’d hear about — such as the danger of oil spills in the waters off Vancouver, a community competing to be called the greenest city in the world. On this issue, we heard from Michael Lowry of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), an industry-funded cooperative that is the only certified oil spill response organization on Canada’s West Coast.

Lowry spoke confidently of WCMRC’s capacity to respond to any spill, and he cited his organization’s quick action after a fuel oil spill in Vancouver’s English Bay in 2015, an incident that the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) summed up by saying, “The operational fuel oil spill cleanup was successfully executed by the WCMRC under the direction of the CCG.”

Excellent! Except Sadhu Johnson, Vancouver’s city manager at the time, told the panel that: the spill was small, 2,900 litres; the location was handy; the weather was perfect; and even so, WCMRC recovered less than half the spilled oil.

Putting that into perspective, Kinder Morgan said that a worst-case Aframax spill would be in the neighbourhood of 16 million litres. And Transport Canada reported that, “Evidence suggests that mechanical recovery rates, in optimal conditions, are usually only between five per cent and 15 per cent of the oil spilled.” That’s with conventional crude; dilbit is harder.

I could go on. Certainly, the presenters did. And many of them were shockingly rude. In which regard, I remain in awe of the patience and professionalism that the three panelists, Kim Baird, Dr. Annette Trimbee and Tony Penikett, showed during the proceedings. A couple of repeat offenders from the environmental community, especially, would begin their presentation by decrying the panelists as corrupt shills for an untrustworthy government and demand that they recuse themselves immediately.

And when the panelists demurred, the presenter would launch into an impassioned plea to be taken seriously as reasonable people making a sensible case. Even when I agreed with their argument, I would have been inclined to have them tossed from the building. By comparison, the oil company executives were unfailingly polite.

The panel process wrapped up in Victoria during a hot week in August. The proceedings were jammed into a hotel meeting room much too small to accommodate 300-odd would-be speakers who were flowing out onto the street, and whose frustration gathered over a long, anger-filled evening.

One speaker after another came to the microphone to condemn the pipeline and the panel’s process, to question the panelists’ sincerity and the government’s accountability. After which, Chair Kim Baird thanked each speaker and asked them to make room for others, still waiting in the hotel hallway, the lobby, or on the sidewalk outside. Finally — around 10:30 p.m. on a day when the panel had started meetings at 9 a.m. — Chair Baird called an end, with more than a hundred people still in the room and many dozens still on the speakers’ list.

Wary of confrontation, the RCMP rushed the panel members from the room, leaving a seething crowd — and me, the panel’s only remaining representative, gathering up my notes.

The crowd surged forward, led by a couple who were spitting mad. They shouted a series of unanswerable questions (“Whoever thought this was a reasonable process?”) and finished with, “Have you ever been in a room like this, where every last person had exactly the same opinion about this issue?”

I paused, not long enough to consider how provocative my answer might be, and I said, “Well, Calgary?”

I regretted it immediately. The difference between an angry crowd and a dangerous mob often teeters on whether someone is prepared to throw the first punch, and as I looked out, I could see a large number of fiery eyes — people who thought I was making fun of them and who might happily join an assault.

Then the guy in front of me started to laugh — quite hard — and he said, “I bet that’s true.” And a ripple of laughter spread through the room as other people registered the truth of what I had just said, and began to sympathize with my own, untenable position. It was a moment of surprising civility, and it left me not just relieved, but hopeful.

In the days that followed, Baird, Penikett and Trimbee got together to review notes and prepare a report. I won’t characterize their level of crankiness. If you want to see how they felt, the report is available online, and, as Penikett had requested, it’s a breezy read – pitched intentionally for a broad audience.

The end of consultations and the purchase of a pipeline

The purportedly anti-Alberta Liberals bought Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion and announced that they were going to finish the “$7.4-billion” project. So, here we are, $34 billion later. Photo By: Shutterstock

The government had explicitly said that it wanted no recommendations, so the panel instead chose to list a series of questions that the government ought to consider before approving the project, such as: “Can construction of a new Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments?” (Spoiler alert: no.) Given the signals that the government wanted the panel to pour oil over troubled waters, I thought Baird, Penikett and Trimbee courageous to conceive and sign a report that did nothing of the sort.

On the contrary, on the day it was released, an old friend — a junior minister in the Trudeau cabinet — phoned me to say that the report had made them cry, and that I should count on them to help disseminate the document and its difficult questions.

Yet, within a month, the government announced that it was approving the project. And 18 months later, when the market had obviously decided the project was an uncosted loser, the purportedly anti-Alberta Liberals bought Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion and announced that they were going to finish the “$7.4-billion” project. My ministerial friend didn’t answer my emails or return my calls for the next six months.

So, here we are, with a $34 billion pipeline the federal government will hardly acknowledge. Well, that’s not completely fair. Finance Minister - and Alberta native - Chrystia Freeland brought it up of her own volition while reading her recent budget speech, a clear poke in the eye to Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. But for a $34-billion public investment, one might have expected fanfare. That’s quite a bit of money. Even for $4.5 billion, the feds might have — I don’t know — completely financed a high-speed rail line from Edmonton to Calgary and still had cash left over to build high-voltage transmission lines across the prairies. That is, they might have invested in technology that would survive the century — and allow us to survive, as well.

Even at Vancouver prices, $34 billion would buy you the 20,000 houses that are closest to the Westridge terminal, including every home in Port Moody (13,000) and thousands more on the bluff in Burnaby and across the water in North Vancouver. For that matter, $34 billion might be enough to cover the cost of the first big spill — which would be handy, because shipper liability is limited to $1.3 billion. Too bad about the local killer whales, though, who likely won’t survive the increased freighter traffic noise and disruption, even if there are no spills.

A final question might be: So what? The pipeline is done. The Alberta oil majors have been increasing their production in anticipation of greater market access. Yes, we knew during the summer of the Ministerial Panel that 2015 had been the warmest year in history. And we learned soon after that 2016 would be hotter still.

Now, we know that 2023 is the new record-holder, and that 10 of the hottest years in history have occurred since 2014. This climate thing is getting worse. But given that a bunch of people are still making a ton of money selling oil, and given that most of us still want to drive our cars or fly home for Christmas, what can we really do about it?

Over the long term, we could — metaphorically and literally — ease off the gas. I’m not suggesting that anyone turn off the taps, abruptly and entirely, or even park a car that you might really need. No one among us can solve climate change single-handedly — not even the prime minister. But we all can stop working so hard to make it worse. Stop expanding the infrastructure that’s putting us all at risk, and start heeding the warnings.

In the meantime — and this might be critical if you live on a certain route between Hinton, Alberta and Burnaby, B.C. — if you get a strong whiff of petroleum or sulphur: “Leave area immediately, on foot, and in an upwind direction.”

Richard Littlemore is a freelance journalist, speech writer, ghostwriter and consultant, with clients currently concentrated in the academic, business and property development sectors.

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An excellent article Mr. Littlemore; a concise history and new information (for me)…after all the reading over many years, I did not know about the wide flammability range and increased pipeline pressures associated with dilbit. I will never forget or forgive the duplicity of the Liberal government.

The approval and investment, opening of Trans Mounrain Pipeline is a CANADIAN embarrassment, an oxymoron decision of environmental hypocrisy, the biggest contradiction of a government promoting itself as climate change leaders. I am appalled. They should take the loss and shut it down to save THEIR SOULS from subjecting our Country, our Environment, all Canadians to such a disastrous environmental risk that is blatantly contrary to emission targets and only serves FURTHERING THE GREED THAT IS DESTROYING OUR WORLD. MIND-BOGGLING MADNESS, CORPORATE EVIL, GOVERNMENT IRRESPONSIBILITY.

The approval and investment, opening of Trans Mounrain Pipeline is a CANADIAN embarrassment, an oxymoron decision of environmental hypocrisy, the biggest contradiction of a government promoting itself as climate change leaders. I am appalled. They should take the loss and shut it down to save THEIR SOULS from subjecting our Country, our Environment, all Canadians to such a disastrous environmental risk that is blatantly contrary to emission targets and only serves FURTHERING THE GREED THAT IS DESTROYING OUR WORLD. MIND-BOGGLING MADNESS, CORPORATE EVIL, GOVERNMENT IRRESPONSIBILITY.

This is a very chilling read, but thank you for writing this article and sharing this information. Once again, mainstream media is not informing the public regarding the dangers of TMX. Some of the info is new to me as well, especially regarding the risks of pipeline pressure with diluted bitumen. The risks of explosive fires around Burnaby Mountain are much worse than I had read about.

Parts of BC have now become the sacrifice zone for the oil industry. This is madness!

Exemplary work, Mr. Littlemore!

I am familiar with your work over at DeSmog and some critical op-eds on climate and the importance of transit oriented urbanism. Your views are balanced with respect for the opposing views, but still manage to bang the nail home on climate.

I am also familiar with the opposition of the cities if Vancouver and Burnaby and most coastal First Nations. The tank farm fire risk is married to the marine spill risk in at least three important aspects: no professional independent risk assessment was ever conducted on either; no remediation funding or cleanup apparatus of sufficient scale have ever been put in place; and the lack of planning for the inevitable is incredibly stupid.

A major tank farm fire would affect between 100,000 and 250,000 people with the toxic smoke alone. Evacuation of the SFU campus? Project proponents have ignored this scenario all along. The largest ships in the BC Ferries fleet stop sailing when the wind in winter gales hit just under 80 km/h. I've seen the West Coast response vessels -- they are small and pathetically equiped and would likely not leave the dock during storms if a collision between a tanker and a container ship that lost power occurred 20 km out in the Strait or on a sharp turn in Boundary Pass.

The fact is we in BC don't need this white elephant project. The jobs and economic spinoffs are microscopic compared to the risks. The project numbers have always been suspect and subjected to industry magical thinking about Asian buyers waiting in anticipation to pay more than American buyers weilding their well-justfied "discount" based on a bad quality product that is very expensive to extract and process.

It goes on.

And yet again, the unanswered question is: has anyone, ever, anywhere, come up with a business case that survives even cursory examination?
Now we are being told that the current federal government is planning on selling this great, ugly, black elephant (somehow describing it as a "white elephant" seemed too extreme an absurdity). There's even scuttlebutt that several First Nations are interested in "investing". That makes me wonder if those are Band Councils - strictly a creature of the federal government and the much hated Indian Act - or hereditary chiefs. My money would be on the former.
If not sold to a consortium of First Nations it is almost guaranteed that the best we can expect is a pennies (remember those?) on the dollar bid that has exactly zero relevance to construction or operating costs or even more remotely what the Canadian citizens paid for the pile of ______ (my mommy won't let me use words like that) in the first place.

Yet we pipeline over 2 million bpd or more to the USA, and no explonions yet! The majority of Canadian oil is now bitumen and obviously diluted. We are caught between a rock and a hard place with climate change and as fossil fuel demand lessens, we may find 34 billion, a stranded asset. But world markets will decide, our world politicians cannot seem incapable of making decisions to reduce fossil fuels impact, or so it seems