What does climate change mean for Alberta’s growing dependence on a pipeline to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries?

Posted on August 29, 2017, 1:16 am
6 mins

PHOTOS: U.S. Climate Change Denier in Chief Donald J. Trump. (Photo: White House.) A woman is rescued from her Houston area home (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.)

“Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!”

So said an apparently astonished Donald J. Trump, First Tweeter of the United States and that country’s Denier in Chief of climate change.

Mr. Trump plans to travel to Houston today to witness and presumably Tweet wonderingly about the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, which continues to dump rain upon and cause unprecedented flooding in the fourth-largest city in the United States despite having been downgraded to a tropical storm.

Of course, thanks to the earthly effects of climate change, the U.S. Gulf Coast probably won’t have to wait another half-millennium to see more apocalyptic scenes like the disturbing photos taken in the Houston area last night.

Ten people are said to have died, but you can count on it that as the waters recede, the death count will rise. We have seen this movie before, and we are going to have to sit through it a lot more times thanks to people like Mr. Trump.

As an earth science professor wrote in the New York Times yesterday, “climate science has repeatedly shown that global warming is increasing the odds of extreme precipitation and storm surge flooding.”

“There is now so much evidence of increasing extremes that anyone who understands the science – or trusts the scientists in their government doing the research – should expect that records will continue to be broken,” said Noah S. Diffenbaugh of Stanford University.

President Trump, of course, is likely to continue to be astonished every time something like this happens – as our own political climate change deniers will be here in Alberta. This includes every single candidate to lead the United Conservative Party, each of whom has vowed to dismantle the NDP’s climate policies.

As for less influentially and more openly conspiratorially minded Albertans, no doubt angry letters denying climate change will continue to flood into the pages of our community newspapers in Alberta, if readers will forgive that turn of phrase in such serious circumstances.

A rising tide of evidence – be it in the form of water or fire – will not turn away the wrath of those inclined to fury at the thought someone in British Columbia or Quebec might not want our pipelines running through their countryside, whether they’re worried about the potential for spills in their backyard or the impact of all that released carbon on the whole planet.

Of course, Mr. Trump saw it much the same way – and moved quickly upon becoming president to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which had been stalled by President Barack Obama.

That decision was widely cheered in Canada, on many sides here in Alberta, but we really should ask ourselves what the long-term impact of climate change will be on the future of the Gulf Coast refining industry, the basket in which Alberta increasingly is placing all its economic eggs.

Very alert readers will recall that, once upon a time, government analysts in Alberta admitted it made more economic sense to upgrade tar sands bitumen here at home, never mind the near universal enthusiasm nowadays for shipping the stuff to tidewater in the hopeful expectation it will fetch more money that way.

Be that as it may, the likelihood of more frequent and more damaging storm surges along the Texas Coast does not bode well for the long-term future of refining on the Gulf of Mexico.

Right now, about one quarter of the United States’ refining output lay in the path of Hurricane Harvey. Yesterday, CNN reported that 10 refineries had been closed in the face of the storm.

The obvious immediate impact will be a spike in the price of gasoline, diesel and similar products as supplies tighten.

Longer term, at the very least, refineries will have to be hardened to withstand increasingly fierce storms. More likely, though, over time the industry will have to move elsewhere – even if it doesn’t decline for other increasingly obvious reasons.

We Albertans really need to ask ourselves how soon it will be, thanks to business decisions resulting from change in the global climate so many of our local politicians deny, that Alberta’s precious pipeline to the Gulf Coast will become a white elephant.

If we’re going to think seriously about Alberta’s future, and maybe actually plan for it, it sure might help to connect the most obvious dots!

32 Comments to: What does climate change mean for Alberta’s growing dependence on a pipeline to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries?

    • Val

      August 29th, 2017

      we may refine oil as much as we want. the problem is what to do with finalized product if in the west majority of active voters are greenish retirees and in the east – unpredictable and in permanent obstruction to anything canadian, Quebec?

      Reply
      • Northern Loon

        August 30th, 2017

        Wow, Val – you certainly live with table full of half full glasses. This greenish almost retiree sees the value in removing our dependence on carbon producing energy. I also know this is not going to happen in the near future so it worthwhile to develop both newer forms of producing energy and the current stream of hydrocarbon based fuels. Your comments about retirees, greens and the east and Quebec being somehow obstructionist

        Reply
        • Val

          August 31st, 2017

          are you sure about concern of greenish retirees about our carbon dependencies?
          majority of them ride big comfy vehicles and even bigger motorhomes, live in huge houses and have no worries about employment and necessity to provide the roof and feed family.

          Reply
  1. anonymous

    August 29th, 2017

    “…Alberta’s precious pipeline to the Gulf Coast will become a white elephant.”

    So Mr. Climenhaga, it turns out that you are a white elephant supremacist after all. Rest assured that The Jesus will channel all the excess diluted bitumen to the right hand of God even if it can’t be channeled to Texas (God talks to me). I know it is not forbidden to speak of diluted bitumen pipelines in Alberta or Canada, but it is simply just not done.

    https://vimeo.com/59002146

    Reply
    • August 29th, 2017

      Especially when you consider most elphants are grey. Very insensitive to those white elephants, however rare they may be, labeling financial rabbit holes as being a “white elephants.”

      Reply
  2. David

    August 29th, 2017

    The vulnerability of the large Texas and gulf coast refineries to hurricanes, storm surges and flooding will likely cause insurance companies and the refinery businesses themselves to rethink whether it is such a good idea to concentrate so much of North American refining in that particular area. I suppose this is perhaps one of the unforeseen consequences of climate change.

    It now suddenly makes much more sense to refine elsewhere (like, say Alberta), especially if there is some damage to some of these refineries and the Keystone XL model of shipping most of our raw bitumen to the US does not seem like such a good idea any more. In some cases, it would also be a lot easier to get pipelines in Canada built and to ship refined crude by tanker, as a number of the environmental concerns are around transporting the diluted raw bitumen.

    It would also provide Alberta with more jobs to build more upgraders and refineries here and allow us to have a more diversified petrochemical industry. I hope this natural disaster will provide the Canadian energy industry with an opportunity to step back and reflect and rethink the long held assumption that shipping our raw product to the US is the best approach.

    Reply
  3. Val

    August 29th, 2017

    conclusion from your article – everyone, who isn’t green minded, including oil industry, an idiots, who can’t see an obvious.
    great article.
    only missing part is a logical ending part – your solution to a raised in article issue and how albertans can save the world.

    Reply
  4. August 29th, 2017

    This may be more than just David’s idle conjecture. We have already seen an increased use of solar panels and wind turbines. Electric cars are gradually becoming more feasible. I do wonder if the Saudis looked at these factors three years ago and realized that demand for their own conventional crude inventory had an end date. That decided, it is obvious that hoarding it to keep the price artificially high is not a good long term business strategy. Consequently, they cranked up production to sell their oil while it still had value, and we are presently living the result: the price fell to less than half its earlier level, leaving Alberta’s, and many other jurisdictions, economy in tatters.

    I would also love to know how many millions (billions?) some Saudi insiders made shorting international energy stocks.

    Reply
    • Val

      August 29th, 2017

      “We have already seen an increased use of solar panels and wind turbines. Electric cars are gradually becoming more feasible.”
      ————————————————————————————————————

      not a wise bet.
      without dotations and subsidies from taxpayers all that industry with solar, wind and electric cars will be bankrupt in the matter of couple of months.

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        August 29th, 2017

        Government subsidies you say? If you want to pull on that thread, our entire economy – including the oil industry – will unravel.

        Reply
        • Val

          August 30th, 2017

          to some degree you’re right.
          difference between old, well established industry and “green” one is that if you take away subsidies from old, they will make less profit but anyway will survive.
          “green” industry don’t have such luxury of flexibility and will not have it in at least next 30 to 50 years.

          Reply
          • Ken

            August 31st, 2017

            I think the “green” industry deserves just as much subsidizing so that it can compete and become established. The Oilsands didn’t become a going concern overnight either.

          • Val

            August 31st, 2017

            perhaps, but does it means old industry must be killed and consumers need to be punished?

      • Ken

        August 30th, 2017

        Similar to those subsidies that gave oilsands development, particularly SAGD, a significant helping hand?

        Reply
  5. political ranger

    August 29th, 2017

    Once again, the dork-in-chief gets it wrong. It will be a once in a thousand year flood, if rainfall totals go over 50″, likely to happen this afternoon.
    The bigger point is that there no basis for the “once in xxx years” flood, storm, fire season – anything. To make these comparisons requires a relatively stable environment, something we haven’t had for at least 35 years now.

    The big question I have is, What were all those people doing for the last 3 days before the storm? I see pix of people being rescued with no shoes on, in pajamas, no meds. This is why denial is such a loser strategy. That storm had been forecasted for days and days.
    It’s so similar to Calgary and their flood; anyone paying attention knew there would be flooding at least 3 days before it happened. Environment Canada was forecasting over 100mm by the 19th. But hey! – it didn’t fit the fantasy being portrayed on twitter and Environment Canada gets so few likes – SAD.

    It’s not going to get better, only worse. Far worse, obviously, than most can imagine. Any idea that more petroleum industry is going to help is complete lunacy.

    Reply
  6. Simon Renouf

    August 29th, 2017

    Excellent post, David! Two brief comments: 1. On climate change. A very good article in yesterday’s Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-more-deadly
    about how climate change has made HH more deadly in several ways: rising gulf sea level, rising surface temperature, rising below surface temperature and increased stalling of severe weather systems. Sending Canadian products to the increasingly vulnerable US gulf coast for refining seems crazy.

    2. On refining bitumen in Alberta. Yes it makes economic sense, and also environmental sense. Diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) causes greater environmental damage than other oil products when there is a pipeline rupture or spill. That’s because it initially floats on water, and then, as the dilutent (diluent) evaporates, the heavier bitumen sinks, contaminating both the surface and bottom of the water body that receives the spill. That occurred with the Enbridge spill on the Kalamazoo River in 2010 (often referred to as the “Dilbit disaster”).

    Reply
  7. August 29th, 2017

    “Of course, Mr. Trump saw it much the same way – and moved quickly upon becoming president to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which had been stalled by President Barack Obama…”

    Hilary Clinton was on record as supporting Keystone as well. So if you were basing your vote last November on who was fo or againt Keystone you were out of luck.

    Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      August 29th, 2017

      There were other people to vote for than Clinton or Trump. Jill Stein, for example, was against Keystone. Just sayin’.

      Reply
  8. Pogo

    August 29th, 2017

    I look at the picture of the Donald, all alone at the little peoples table in Camp David and I I’m reminded of this: https://youtu.be/IIEWPQKIzXs

    Reply
    • Pogo

      August 29th, 2017

      Oh, and buy the buy? Send money to your mega grifter church buddies because the Trump isn’t bad. He’s just an instrument of the same non existent God that has never intervened for any obvious good ever! Yay! Verily! I want to send money to some shill who will spend it on a fat lifestyle! I’m an effing idiot!

      Reply
  9. brett

    August 29th, 2017

    I do not understand this.

    The likes of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney have been telling us for years that there was not such thing as climate change.

    How can both of these individuals be wrong? After all, they were/are both Conservatives.

    Reply
  10. Farmer B

    August 30th, 2017

    If I understand you correctly your suggesting that the refineries in Texas could become unusable in the future due to their location and that Alberta should be building refineries to insure a more stable market for our oil. The Sturgeon refinery currently under construction got it’s approvals in 2012, construction began in 2013 and is supposed to be finished later this year at projected cost of 8.5 billion and the first phase will handle 80000 barrels a day. That is only the first phase of a 3 phase project that when complete will process 240000 barrels a day. I believe the NDP future budget projections for 2020 are based(could be wrong going by memory) on 5000000 barrels of oil a day. So my question is how many years would it take to get approvals for the new refineries? Could you even get approvals in today’s political climate? What would this cost? Do you really think we could get approval for a pipeline for refined products? The newly proposed NEB approval process is supposed to consider both upstream and downstream emissions(not applied to car manufacturers interestingly enough) which will in my opinion will eliminate any future pipeline construction. I do believe the economic future of Alberta is not as bright as it once was. Enjoy your day 🙂

    Reply
  11. Keith McClary

    August 30th, 2017

    UCP candidate Callaway urges Alberta buy Port of Churchill to spur oil sales
    “Callaway says the cost of fixing up the grain terminals and the rail line would run about $20 million.

    ‘It’s a small, small investment to make for prosperity in Western Canada,’ he said. His plan would also include partnering with industry to build a pipeline to the port, which could run into the billions of dollars.”

    “Partnering” = loan guarantees and subsidies.

    If the NDP proposed this it would be a socialist boondoggle.

    Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      August 31st, 2017

      re: ‘If the NDP proposed this it would be a socialist boondoggle.’

      Exactly.

      Irony-challenged and politically incoherent describes most of AB’s current so-called conservative leadership.

      They’re about as coherent as a Trump speech.

      Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      August 31st, 2017

      If they had any integrity to their private-sector-is-god ideology, Kenney and Jean and the other wannabe UCP leaders would also have to call many of Lougheed’s choices NDP-type of socialism.

      http://www.edmontonjournal.com/business/Peter+Lougheed+leaves+lasting+economic+political+legacy+Alberta/7239712/story.html

      An airline for AB! ‘ his government purchased Pacific Western Airlines ‘

      An AB owned energy company!! ‘he set up the Alberta Energy Company so all Albertans could invest directly in the new oil wealth.’

      A housing corporation: ‘Alberta Housing Corporation to bank land for housing and help moderate prices. ‘

      An AB gov’t venture capital fund! A gov’t bank, god forbid! ‘Lougheed set up Vencap, a venture capital fund to fill the gap and promote diversification.’
      =====================

      FWIW… the CBC Edmonton AB host did his level best to get Callaway to respond to the ideological contradiction of his proposal.

      Reply
    • August 31st, 2017

      Yeah, I thought the same thing when I read Calloway’s suggestion. One of St. Ralph’s (many) mantras was ‘We are getting out of the business of being in business’, or words to that effect, as the PCs of the 1990s sold off the businesses the PCs of the 1970s & 80s bought in an attempt to diversify Alberta’s economy.

      Reply
    • Val

      August 31st, 2017

      theoretically its solution but on practical side not really good one.
      it’s like old antic car, you may buy relatively cheap but to restore it to decent condition gonna cost you fortune. even after you’re done, you wouldn’t take a long trip due to unreliability.
      those port open only 4 months per year. from Alberta to port Churchill 90% is pristine wilderness with no population, infrastructure, harsh climate, tough terrain and no any perspective for any kind of development in near future.
      if proponents of climate change are correct, then perhaps 200-300 years from now it will make more sense. till then even Hudson Bay could be much closer to Alberta 🙂

      Reply
  12. CovKid

    September 1st, 2017

    “if proponents of climate change are correct, then perhaps 200-300 years from now it will make more sense. till then even Hudson Bay could be much closer to Alberta

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 1st, 2017

      I think the suggestion is that the coastline may move inland as the seas rise, the result of polar ice melting. DJC

      Reply
      • CovKid

        September 1st, 2017

        If you look at the geomorphology of the coastline around Hudson Bay you will discover that it is still rising as a result of the retreat of glaciation from the last Ice Age. Perhaps not fast enough to counter the effects of rising sea levels due to the melting of sea ice, so I take your point.

        Reply

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