A Vancouver company is pitching a $10-billion oilsands refinery on British Columbia's north coast that aims to connect Alberta's vast energy resources with Asian markets, while avoiding some of the pitfalls others have encountered.
Pacific Future Energy Corp. says the refinery would be the "world's greenest" and built in full partnership with B.C. First Nations, many of whom are vehemently opposed to proposals to ship crude to the West Coast for export.
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Any day now, Ottawa is expected to decide on one of those proposals: Enbridge Inc.'s controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. One of the biggest concerns with that project is the fact that huge tankers full of diluted oilsands bitumen, or dilbit, would have to navigate the rough waters of the Douglas Channel on their way out into the Pacific.
The Pacific Future proposal — and another one being floated by B.C. newspaper magnate David Black — would mean refined products, rather than heavy oil, would be shipped on tankers to Asia, making a potential spill much less environmentally damaging.
"I think everybody knows that it's in Canada's strategic national interest to increase and diversify oil production into Asia," Pacific Future executive chairman Samer Salameh said in an interview.
Fear of oil spills
"But I think everybody in their heart knows that shipping this dilbit is not the answer."
A dilbit spill from a supertanker off the B.C. coast would make the Exxon Valdez disaster look like a "joke," he said.
"We think it's horrible to be shipping bitumen out of B.C. waters. We think that's not the right thing to do by the environment, it's not the right thing to do by First Nations and it's not the right thing to do by the B.C. people. This is a solution to everybody's problem."
The Pacific Future leadership team includes venture capitalists and former provincial and federal government advisers. Salameh has experience financing and building telecommunications infrastructure for Mexican conglomerate Groupo Salinas.
The company aims to include First Nations in the process from the get-go. One of Salameh's first hires for the management team was Jeffery Copenace, who was deputy chief of staff to former Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo and has worked with the Ontario and federal government on aboriginal issues.
Wants First Nations onside
"We hope to have learned from others' mistakes and we started this thing right," said Salameh. "We absolutely are convinced we cannot do this project without the full participation of the First Nations."
Pacific Future plans to build a "near zero net carbon" refinery that will reuse waste products and prevent harmful emissions from entering the atmosphere.
"This refinery, not only is the greenest in the world, not only does it create jobs, it solves the incredible issue of shipping oil out of B.C. waters," Salameh said in an interview with CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange.
The company says the refinery will be built in 200,000-barrel-per-day modules, with the ability to expand to a total of one million barrels per day. Salameh told CBC the financing is already in place for the first stage of the project.
The refinery is not contingent on Northern Gateway going ahead, but could begin operation with oil shipped by rail from Alberta, though it could scale up if the pipeline is built, Salameh said.
Within six months, it expects to pick a location for the plant. It's weighing one site near Kitimat and two further north near Prince Rupert. Safety concerns are causing Pacific Future to lean toward the latter, as it's a shorter journey out to the open Pacific from there.
The company hopes a pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast will be built by the time the refinery is built seven to nine years from now. But because the refinery can be expanded in increments, rail can be used to feed a smaller-scale facility in the beginning, Salameh said.
The Pacific Future plan is based on a similar premise to Black's $32-billion Kitimat Clean Ltd. proposal, which would involve a refinery, oil pipeline, natural gas pipeline and tanker fleet. Kitimat Clean is asking Ottawa for a loan guarantee covering about a third of that amount.
Salameh said he's not concerned about competing with Kitimat Clean.
"David is a wonderful person and has been talking about this for a while. We are acting," he said.
"I will absolutely tell you there's no one as far ahead in the process as we are."