Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell First

Climate change, global warming, environmental devastation, fracking, burst tailing ponds, tar sands, pipelines, oil tankers, liquified natural gas, carbon credits, renewable energy sources – hot topics plagued by fervently distributed information, misinformation, propaganda, protest, and uncertainty.

For days now, local Vancouver news broadcasts have opened with updates on environmental protests against Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – a project committed to tripling crude oil moving from Alberta’s tar sands to tankers in Burnaby – a suburb of Vancouver. Despite a court injunction obtained last Thursday allowing surveyors to drill bore holes deep beneath a conservation area on Burnaby Mountain – every day scores of concerned citizens peacefully cross police tape, knowing they’ll be “carried” to waiting paddy wagons. Tonight’s news highlight reported the arrest of a 87 year old woman – it’s been several days since accurate numbers of arrested individuals was reported as anything other than “well over 100″.

Immediately following KM protest coverage, a story broke warming corners of my tired oil sands heart. Hyundai made Vancouver the first Canadian city privy to their Tuscon Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle.

Not to be confused with Electric Vehicles that run on electrically charged  batteries, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles generate their own electricity. Hydrogen fuel cells basically separate hydrogen atoms into positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. Electricity happens when uninterrupted electrons are free to flow continuously – voila, your motor is running. Meanwhile the positively charged protons bonds with oxygen atoms, creating heat which escapes as steamy water vapor.

Critics are quick to trot out energy cancelling arguments such as ” energy needed to manufacture hydrogen fuel cells negate benefits of zero carbon omissions” – I don’t care. Scores of these very same dullards claimed a few years ago hydrogen fuel cells wouldn’t work in extreme hot or cold climates – absolutely not true.

Undaunted by the fact only one “refueling” station exists in Canada (Surrey B.C.) I prefer to be buoyed by the effort of marketing renewable energy vehicles. Hyundai is taking applications from people interested in a 3 year lease at $599 a month including free “charging” (required every 400 Km. or so, and taking about 5 minutes). The first computers, cell phones, flat screen televisions – how long did it take before demand made them affordable? Take that big oil.


Enbridge Pipeline

Canadian government approval of a 1,200 kilometer pipeline from the Alberta Oil Sands to Kitimat B.C. was a foregone conclusion. Enbridge Inc’s 6.5 billion dollar Northern Gateway project – intended to cut a B-line from tar sands to super tankers in Douglas Channel at Kitimat – came with a sugar coating of 209 “conditions”. Harper government jibber jabber attempted to soothe hundreds of protestors gathering in downtown Vancouver – feeble assurances at least 100 vague conditions would have to be met before construction could begin. Not limited to, but including satisfying a joint review panel, including the province of B.C. (in a project void of economic gain, and fraught with environmental disaster for the province) in the process, and “engaging” Aboriginal peoples and northern communities to “build trust”.

Lets take a look at Enbridge –

Between 1999 and 2008 Enbridge had 610 “little accidents” – spills responsible for 21 million liters of hydrocarbon ending up where they didn’t belong. In 2010 they released 4 million liters of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River – it never recovered or re-opened. Just one of the 91 “reportable’ spills that year – a slight improvement from 103 the year before. In 2009, U.S. branch Enbridge Energy Partners settled a lawsuit with the state of Wisconsin for 545 environmental violations. A 2011 “reported” leak of 4 barrels, classified as an insignificant “pin hole” leak made headlines when an Inuit man from Northwest Territories stumbled upon the reality of at least 1,500 barrels fouling his hunting grounds.

Visual aides are powerful and effective tools – we tend to take them at face value, seeing is believing – at least that’s what Enbridge assumed when the graphic on the left below appeared in one of their glossy presentations. Depicting an unobstructed channel with clear sailing to the open Pacific ocean. When Lori Waters posted the graphic on the right to her facebook page – an accurate portrayal of Douglas Channel showing narrow passages, tightly packed islands, and dangerous rocks – Enbridge  issued an embarrassingly transparent defense –

“That video is meant to be for illustrative purposes only. It’s not meant to be to scale. It’s meant to illustrate the pipeline route, not the marine aspects of the operation,” said Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier.

Good one Enbridge! Couple your perfectly reasonable explanation with exemplary safety and environmental history – we feel a lot better now. What’s a smattering of whinny aboriginals, sock and sandal environmentalists, tree hugging alarmists, fresh water drinking idealists – when there’s money to be made.

The Harper government has no trouble swallowing your laughable smoke screening shenanigans. The rest of us aren’t so stupid, short sighted or powerful – you have us over a barrel and there’s not a thing we can do about it – well played. Just remember – nothing is forever, and this Canadian suspects you’ll be crying in your oil slick come the next election.

Enbridge adThe Douglas Channel as seen in an Enbridge ad, left, and a comparison image created by graphic designer Lori Waters. (Facebook)

Bitumen Greed

When I think of oil  I picture John Wayne capping a well in classic 60s style, or lazy pumps rocking up and down across the landscape. Oil pools beneath the ground; oilmen drill and pump it to the surface, move it to refineries by pipeline, then distribute it via freight systems to its final destination. There are mishaps like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska or the bungled well in the Gulf of Mexico; the latter received 24 hour news coverage for weeks – an epic ecological disaster. Fouled beaches impacted tourism, shellfish beds destroyed, fragile marshland and glades gasping beneath globs of crude oil. Count down clocks clicked until another attempt was made to contain the devastation. Debates raged over blame and compensation, newsmen interviewed every forlorn shrimp man and business owner along the Gulf Coast. For weeks on end – analysis, impact reports, and human interest stories; and without fail, an ever present split screen showing crude oil spewing from the underground well.

Oil spills come and go, they blaze across media outlets for a few weeks, then forgotten until the next one reminds us to be more careful. Out of sight, out of mind.  The oil most people think of is pumped from reserves deep in the earth; vast pools of crude, waiting in underground lakes. Until an accident impacts the environment –  no visible damage on the horizon.

Bitumen is another story. This tar like, semi solid substance is found in sandy or clay like earth known as tar sands. The 141,000 square Km Athabasca Tar Sands in northern Alberta gives Canada the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi oil, this is Bitumen – in the earth, not beneath it.

In 1967, Sun Oil Company was the first to commercially extract crude from the sands using water and surfactants to separate the oil, initial production was around 30,00 barrels a day. Now 64 oil companies, most of them foreign, produce upwards of a million barrels a day.  Production is expected to increase at the same rate, the government has no intention of conducting business any other way. Alberta has one of the lowest royalties in the world for its oil, in 1994 the federal government gave tax breaks of 100% for capital investment; to be “written off” as “accelerated capital cost allowances”. Canada has rolled out the red carpet to foreign investment with just one stipulation – once the land has been strip mined, it should be restored to “equivalent land capability”, although land use does not have to be identical.

The tar sands area around Fort McMurray is, or was Boreal forest and muskeg. The Athabasca River runs through the sands and provides the massive amount of water needed to process Bitumen. The water is heated using ridiculous amounts of natural gas; so much so that Alberta may have to reduce natural gas shipments to America to keep up with the tar sands. Huge tailing pools contain by-products of the refining process. Mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxic waste products seep into the ground, and spill back into the Athabasca River with nothing more than an “oops – sorry” from the oil companies. Hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres, as far as the eye can see, wiped off the face of the earth.

Ponder those weeks spent watching images of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, then look long and hard at the pictures. Granted the gulf supports many more people, shrimp are much more popular than Northern Pike, and the livelihood of northern Canada’s mostly indigenous population doesn’t hold a candle to the plight of oyster men in Louisiana.