Refining Canada's energy plan for a less tarnished future

Our contributor argues that Canada's newest refinery could be a step in a better direction

Enbridge’s Line 9, as well as other pipelines, have raised many environmental concerns that the new refinery in Alberta may help to alleviate.
Enbridge’s Line 9, as well as other pipelines, have raised many environmental concerns that the new refinery in Alberta may help to alleviate.
Photo: 
Credit: 
Sam Koebrich for the Kingston Whig-Standard

Joshua Goodfield, ArtSci '15

When I originally found out that Canada started constructing its newest refinery on Friday I felt ethically conflicted as to whether I should be in favour of the project.

I realized, though, that this change could stimulate our economy with new jobs while simultaneously reducing the amount of heavy oil being transported through pipelines. Although the refinery isn’t beneficial for the environment, in light of Canada’s alternative practices, I see it as less of a threat and a more practical option.

Using an oil sands refinery, although not perfect, is the best way to balance the well-being of Canada’s economy and environment. Critics will likely argue that this refinery is heralding an increase in oil sand production. We already have the oil sands, so we might as well increase the value of and control over Alberta’s natural resources.

This means that the creation of a refinery could be a middle ground. Building a refinery can prevent the volume of pipeline usage and, in the future, could be used to promote renewable biofuel resources. Based on the realities of Canada’s economy, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a shift from oil sands production any time soon.

The term ‘refinery’ is highly contested in the energy and resource sector. This confusion stems from the perception that anything ‘refined’ becomes perfected. Canadians have become accustomed to a resource-extraction economy and although any environmentalist would hope to see the oil sands untouched, based on Canada’s path that does not seem like a feasible route.

This new refinery will aim to generate diesel energy for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) and Alberta’s provincial government. Anyone interested in Canada’s energy sector is well aware of how the federal government relies on Alberta’s resource extraction.

The objective for CNRL is to convert diluted bitumen into a finished diesel product. Bitumen is a dense and viscous petroleum that doesn’t flow easily during the transportation process through pipelines. This creates a problem when Canada needs to transport bitumen from the oil sands to the market.

These pipelines have the potential to harm human life, biodiversity and the environment. Having this new refinery means that less bitumen will be transported through the unreliable pipelines.

The transportation of diluted bitumen has been on Ontario’s radar recently because of a proposal by Enbridge Inc. to reverse the flow of the oil through its Line 9 Pipeline, which runs north of Kingston.

Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC) has worked to prevent the controversial Line 9 reversal. Kingston, being close to the pipeline, would be threatened in the event of a pipeline malfunction. On Oct. 22, 2012, in front of the JDUC, I joined other environmentally-conscious Queen’s students in a protest to prevent the reversal of bitumen flow in Line 9. This was the moment that sparked my passion to become more educated and critical in regards to Canada’s energy sector.

I consider myself to be an environmentally concerned person whose first priority is to help in the effort to decrease the volume of oil flowing through crude-oil pipelines. Pipelines have proven to be expensive and inconsistent. Notably, Enbridge Inc. had a 3.3 million litre bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010, which the company is still working to clean up. They also foster tense international relations and create a great risk to anything near the spill.

Although we may not know the potential or limitations of this refinery, I believe that having an overwhelming degree of bitumen flowing through our pipelines creates a greater risk.

The planning process suggests the refinery will accept bitumen and convert it to diesel, a more valuable product. Refining the oil within Canada not only creates jobs, but also allows the product to be sold at a higher price than unrefined bitumen.

Building this refinery is a worthwhile risk because it appears to be the next logical step for Canada. This is the first new refinery built in nearly 30 years. With this infrastructure available to Canadians, this could be the beginning of an effort to become more energy-independent. This would make Canada less reliant on international partners to convert our bitumen into diesel.

I see this project as moving one step closer to a future where we can truly define what a refinery is capable of. Canada has received mixed messages and confusing signals within our country. I’m exposed to messages from environmentalists and my academic studies suggesting that our environment is at risk, and I also hear messages from politicians and industrial groups suggesting they have plans to act sustainability.

As a concerned Canadian citizen, I constantly feel conflicted about what’s truly going on in regards to environmental issues and how much jeopardy we’re in. Hopefully this refinery can satisfy those who want to develop our resources without straining our environment to a greater degree.

Joshua is a third-year geography and environmental studies student.

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