Edmonton·Audio

Little environmental backlash to semi-solid Alberta bitumen shipment despite B.C. tanker ban

News of the first shipment of semi-solid Alberta bitumen to international markets from a B.C. port is facing minimal backlash from environmental groups.

‘We’ve seen a demonstration of solid phase oil transport and it works ... there’s no real upsets there'

Melius Energy moved semi-solid bitumen inside 20-foot metal shipping containers from Edmonton to Prince Rupert, B.C., by intermodal rail. (Submitted by Melius Energy)

News of the first shipment of semi-solid Alberta bitumen to Asia from a B.C. port is facing minimal backlash from environmental groups. 

Calgary-based Melius Energy announced last month that it successfully moved 130 barrels of semi-solid bitumen from Edmonton to Prince Rupert, B.C., by intermodal rail.

The bitumen is now in a vessel on its way to China, contained in custom 20-foot shipping containers. 

"From our transportation point of view, I think it's remarkably better than shipping it via oil tanker or by pipeline," said Karen Wristen, executive director of environmental group Living Oceans Society, in an interview aired on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday.

"If the bitumen is kept in its solid state it's about the consistency of peanut butter and that's not likely to spill." 

A company says they've found a new way to send bitumen overseas, but not everyone is ready to get on board. 6:54

The semi-solid bitumen, petroleum found in natural deposits then treated with what's known as the BitCrude process, can be refined in international markets to make products such as asphalt, diesel, and gasoline. 

"Asia has always had a high demand for Canada's bitumen," said Yuri Butler, logistics manager at Melius. "We've just never been able to get it to tidewater. And this allows us to safely and responsibly ship to tidewater and then to anywhere in Asia where there's huge demand."

Bypasses oil tanker ban

Last June, Bill C-48 was passed, prohibiting liquid oil products from docking along B.C.'s northern coast. 

When transported in its custom-designed metal shipping containers, the semi-solid bitumen is non-flammable, floats in both fresh and saltwater, and is non-toxic to marine life, Butler said. 

While the shipment of the semi-solid bitumen may not violate the intent behind the tanker legislation, it does violate the hopes the environmental community had for the oil ban, namely, ruling out the passage of any form of hydrocarbons, Wristen said.  

"I'm not endorsing the idea by a long shot," Wristen said. "I don't think we should be moving bitumen at all."

Bulk shipping concerns

Luanne Roth, a campaigner with T. Buck Suzuki, an ocean and fisheries protection group on the West Coast, wasn't opposed to the shipment of the bitumen, she told CBC's Daybreak North.

"If you're going to be shipping it, it seemed like a relatively safe way to do it," said Roth. "It's a good way to limit any massive harm if there's an accident."

Roth's concern would be if the company got rid of the metal shipping containers in favour of bulk carriers to transport the bitumen at a reduced cost, she said.  

Before the company scales up its commercial shipments, Butler said it plans to pursue more public consultation. 

"Every time we ship anything with the word bitumen out, there's lots of concerns," Butler said. "We want to make sure we've addressed all those key questions or concerns that people have before we get to anything on this scale-wise."

More innovation

Melius is not the only company working on innovations to export bitumen without the risk of an oil spill.

Ian Gates, a professor at the University of Calgary who is working on self-sealing pellets or balls of bitumen, said the fact that Melius Energy proved they can export from Canada is a good sign. 

"There was a bit of an uncertainty for us," said Gates. "We've seen a demonstration of solid phase oil transport and it works, it's fine, there's no real upsets there. So with respect to ours, we believe there will be as much or little struggle as what they had." 

About the Author

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is an associate producer and reporter at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca or on Twitter @TandiwayK (https://twitter.com/TandiwayK).

With files from Ariel Fournier

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