Skip to comments.Kinder Morgan quietly plans West Coast pipeline expansion for oil sands
Posted on 04/23/2013 5:45:07 AM PDT by thackney
As President Obama weighs the fate of the Keystone pipeline, a similar project connecting Canadas oil sands to the West Coast is quietly moving forward, little noticed in the United States.
A 60-year-old pipeline already pumps oil from northern Alberta to Vancouvers busy harbor for shipment to Asia or California. Now the owner, Kinder Morgan Canada, wants to nearly triple the Trans Mountain Pipelines capacity, making it even bigger than Keystone.
And unlike Keystone, Trans Mountains proposed $5.4 billion expansion doesnt need the approval of the U.S. government. Canadian authorities will have the final say.
The project would give Canadas oil industry something it desperately wants a wide-open conduit between the tar sands and the global market. The existing pipelines that run from northern Alberta are at full capacity, and oil sands operators cant increase production as a result. Plus, most of the lines run south to the United States, which is in the midst of its own oil boom. Direct access to overseas customers could fetch tar sands oil a higher price.
The constraints are extremely real, said Geoff Hill, head of consulting firm Deloitte Canadas oil and gas practice. We cant get our product to market. We need several pipelines leaving Canada, not one.
Very little tar sands oil finds its way into California today. But the Trans Mountain expansion could change that, placing the state in the center of the oil sands debate.
Canada now supplies just 2.4 percent of the crude processed in California refineries, according to the states energy commission. And one of Californias global warming regulations would make it difficult for those refineries to use tar sands oil in the future. The rule, called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, requires oil companies to cut the carbon intensity of the fuels they sell in the state.
But the standard is under attack in court and has already been ruled unconstitutional by one judge. Should higher courts strike it down, Trans Mountain oil could find eager buyers in California. Oil shipments from Alaska long one of Californias main suppliers are falling, making the state more dependent on foreign imports.
Would it be beneficial to refiners to get this Canadian crude into the refineries in California and the West Coast? said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers trade group. The short answer is yes. The long answer is heck yes.
Hotly debated in Canada, Trans Mountain hasnt attracted much attention on this side of the border.
U.S. environmentalists have pushed hard to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline extension, trying to keep the tar sands bottled up. Extracting hydrocarbons from the sands releases more carbon dioxide than conventional oil drilling, adding to global warming.
The $5.3 billion Keystone XL project would connect Hardistry, Alberta, to refineries on the Texas coast, completing a pipeline network that now extends as far south as Oklahoma. The project has touched off a pitched political brawl, pitting an alliance of Republicans, business groups and labor organizations against environmentalists, including some prominent Democratic fundraisers. If Obama approves its construction, the new line could open as soon as 2015.
American environmentalists recognize they dont have any political leverage to stop Trans Mountain, since the expansion wont touch U.S. soil. Theyll still try to help their Canadian counterparts any way they can. They see the fight against Keystone as just the first in a series of battles over multiple pipelines proposed for the tar sands, a fight that will involve citizens of both countries.
The theory has always been delay, delay, delay, said Michael Marx, director of the Sierra Clubs Beyond Oil campaign. We know the key to expanding the tar sands is getting the oil to market. So our strategy is to block the infrastructure.
Kinder Morgan Canada, a subsidiary of Houstons Kinder Morgan Inc., plans to submit a formal expansion proposal to Canadas National Energy Board in October, starting a two-year approval process. The company has been holding meetings in communities along the route, finding both support and opposition.
The issues around climate are important they need to be considered, said Michael Davies, director of marine development for the project. But a project like this is important to Canada. Its important to the Canadian economy. And well look to the National Energy Board to weigh the benefits with the risks.
Trans Mountain opened in 1953, years before commercial operations at the oil sands began.
The line snakes 715 miles through forests and mountain passes, starting near Edmonton and reaching the sea on the outskirts of Vancouver. A short spur heads south across the U.S. border, connecting to the refineries of Washington state.
Trans Mountain carries refined petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel, for use in British Columbia. It also ships a diluted form of bitumen, the thick and viscous hydrocarbon that gave the tar sands their name. (People in the oil industry prefer the term oil sands.)
Capable of carrying 300,000 barrels per day, Trans Mountain is the only pipeline linking Alberta to the Pacific coast. And that gives Kinder Morgan an advantage.
Another company, Enbridge, wants to build a second West Coast pipeline well to the north. But Enbridge has run into a wall of resistance from environmentalists and First Nations tribes determined not to see a new line carved through the wilderness.
Trans Mountains expansion, in contrast, would string a second pipeline alongside the first. For most of the route, the second line could be installed within the existing right of way. Some detours may be required where the line runs through communities that have grown since 1953.
The second line would boost Trans Mountains capacity to 890,000 barrels per day. Keystones proposed capacity is 830,000 barrels per day.
Even though the new pipe would largely parallel the old, Trans Mountains expansion has already drawn fire.
The Coldwater Indian Band of British Columbia last month sued both Kinder Morgan and the Canadian governments minister of Indian affairs to block the project. Environmentalists worry that a second line would double the chances of a spill. Theyre also alarmed that the number of tanker ships moving through Vancouvers harbor each month would jump from five to 34, by Kinder Morgans estimate. They say that unlike oil, diluted bitumen known as dilbit sinks in water, making any spill from a tanker hard to clean up.
This is a risk not worth taking, said Todd Paglia, executive director of the ForestEthics environmental group, which has offices in Vancouver, San Francisco and Bellingham, Wash. People feel very strongly that this is not the future of British Columbia, that its too much risk to put the salmon and the waters in jeopardy.
According to Kinder Morgan, the pipeline has suffered 78 spills since record keeping by the National Energy Board began in 1961. About 70 percent occurred at pump stations or terminals, which typically have systems in place to contain leaked oil.
Lets be clear: any spill is unacceptable, Davies said. Were very proud of our record. All human endeavor involves some risk, and we work very hard to manage that.
Oil to California
Unlike Keystone, the U.S. government has no authority over the Trans Mountain project. The only piece of the pipeline that crosses into American territory the spur into Washington state would not receive a second, parallel line. As a result, U.S. environmentalists must watch the debate from a distance, even though many of the ships loaded with Trans Mountain dilbit would probably sail through U.S. waters.
Thats what is really frustrating, said Elisabeth Keating, with the Sierra Clubs Washington state chapter. All this stuff is coming through Puget Sound, and we cant do anything about it.
California could be one of the destinations.
At a time when the United States is growing less dependent on foreign oil, California is becoming more. Crude flowing from newly fracked shale rock in North Dakota and Texas doesnt come here. Oil production within California ticked up last year for the first time in over a decade, but the increase was tiny and followed years of steady decline.
Meanwhile, petroleum shipments from Alaska are shrinking. Alaska once supplied 46 percent of the crude processed in California. Today, its 12.5 percent.Last defense line
The Low Carbon Fuel Standard doesnt bar California refineries from using tar sands oil. But it does pose an obstacle.
The standard requires oil companies to lower the amount of greenhouse gases associated with each gallon of fuel they sell in the state. State regulators study the emissions produced by extracting oil from the ground, processing it, and burning it in an engine. Different oil fields receive different scores, depending on their production techniques.
Under that system, the tar sands fare badly. The bitumen bound in the sand is too thick to flow into a well, the way crude oil does. So companies strip mine the sand and use hot water to separate out the hydrocarbons. Or they pump steam or solvents underground to make the bitumen less viscous and easier to extract.
Those production techniques require more energy than conventional oil drilling and, therefore, release more greenhouse gases. Environmentalists consider the fuel standard a last line of defense, denying oil sands producers access to Californias large and lucrative market.
But it may not last. In 2011, a U.S. district judge in Fresno ruled that the fuel standard violated the Constitution by interfering with interstate commerce. That decision is still under appeal.
In addition, the companies working in the oil sands have been slowly ratcheting down the carbon intensity of their operations, said Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Greenhouse gas emissions per barrel have dropped 26 percent over the last two decades, he said. And one of the newer production techniques, which uses a mix of propane and steam, has a carbon intensity just 2 percent higher than the U.S. average, he said. The states fuel standard may not be such a barrier after all.
If its done on an oil-by-oil basis, and everyones treated the same scientific way, we can actually live with that, Stringham said.
Meanwhile, other pipeline projects linked to the oil sands are moving forward. Two proposals, for example, would extend or reverse the flow on existing pipelines that stretch between Alberta and Canadas eastern provinces, giving tar sands oil access to the Atlantic coast. Environmentalists vow to fight those, too.
There are many efforts to pursue other routes that dont go south, said Hill, with Deloitte. You can assume some of them will be successful. Were going to get the oil out.
Just giving it away to the Chinese, at virtually no cost to the Chinese....
The Canadians have a product to sell, and they are going to deliver it to the first buyer who puts the fewest obstacles in their way.
Of course, Japan benefits from this simplified access to energy as well. But Japan is, economically, in a holding pattern, while China is expanding with an exuberance largely unmatched in the world today.
The article suggests oil is running short in Alaska.
Couldn’t be further from the truth.
I thought Piers turned over a new leaf! Good thing I read the article not just the head line.
To all- please ping me to Canadian topics.
Instead of running Keystone Pipeline from Nebraska to the Gulf, why not build a refinery and distribution hub in Nebraska?
Because the demand for the products isn’t in Nebraska. You still have to build pipelines to deliver gasoline, diesel, petrochemical feedstocks. You will have solid products like sulfur and petroleum coke that has little market in Nebraska as well.
We don’t have a refinery shortage. We actually refine more product than we use and export the surplus. Our shortage is in domestic production, we still import more oil than we produce ourselves. We import more oil from OPEC nations than from Canada.
Whatever market there is for those products in the Gulf must be oversaturated. Nebraska is a lot closer to NW and Mid West and Ne markets than Texas and Louisiana. I believe our petroleum industry is way too centralized geographically for security and economic reasons. If Nebraska isn’t ideal put it on the Mississippi River someplace. There is nothing magical about the Gulf region except the connections among the oil industry and politicians.
Really?!? Is that why major companies have spent billions expanding the refineries over the last few year?
Along with the existing refineries are existing product pipelines delivering gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. We also have hydrogen pipelines supplying feedstock to the refineries as well as the natural gas and crude oil.
Nebraska is a lot closer to NW and Mid West and Ne markets than Texas and Louisiana.
Sure, but the output isn't limited to only transportation fuelds. And you only trade building one pipeline problem for multiple others. Also, the Nebraska to Gulf Coast portions ins't the main problem, it is already under construction and has been for a while. The problem is getting more from Canada down to Nebraska.
There is nothing magical about the Gulf region except the connections among the oil industry and politicians.
Dollars are the important item. You want to spend billions to replace existing infrastructure and build it away from the existing delivery systems and markets.
You missed my point entirely. What ever is produced in the Gulf is consumed in many markets far away from there. Instead of continuing to invest in the centralization of the industry I think it makes good sense to de-centralize geophraphically. You cite cost but expanding existing facilities isn’t free either. One of these days a Sandy like storm is going to shut down the entire Gulf for an extended period of time. When that happens people are going to ask why we have hardly any refineries anywhere else.
One of these days a Sandy like storm is going to shut down the entire Gulf for an extended period of time.
The Gulf is a rather big place, not a single city location. We have operated in the area for a long time, taken damage, learned our lessons. Coast Facilities are usually designed for 160 mph winds and we maintain our dike walls far better than government does around New Orleans. Problems happen, just as they do inland, but the whole coast isn't shutting down. Most of the facilities are miles inland, not on the actual coast.