There have always been commentators who believe that if the Northern Gateway Pipeline is rejected by the Joint Review Panel or stopped by other means, that the bitumen from Alberta should be carried by rail to Prince Rupert.
A pipeline to Prince Rupert has already been rejected by Enbridge as impractical given the mountainous terrain and the narrow footprint along the Skeena River from Terrace to Prince Rupert.
That means taking bitumen by rail to Prince Rupert has not been seriously studied—until now.
The State Department Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the US Gulf, does give serious consideration to the rail to Rupert option.
That’s because under its mandate the State Department had to consider alternatives to Keystone. The detailed look at carrying crude to the west coast is contained in the “No Action Alternatives” section of the Keystone report (that is telling President Barack Obama what might happen if he takes no action on Keystone)
The EIS took a brief look at the possibilities of rail to Kitmat, but concentrates mostly on Prince Rupert.
As for sending bitumen to the Gulf,via rail and tanker, the Keystone report concludes, as have most analysts that even if bitumen was shipped by rail to Prince Rupert, it would be cheaper to send it to markets in Asia than through the Panama Canal to the US Gulf Coast.
If pipelines to the Canadian West coast are not expanded or approved, even incurring the additional cost of rail transport to the West Coast ports (Vancouver, Kitimat, or Prince Rupert), estimated at $6 per barrel, results in a total transport cost to Asia that is still 40 percent cheaper than going via the Gulf Coast.
Absent a complete block on crude oil exports from the Canadian West Coast, there would belittle economic incentive to use the proposed project as a pass through. The high costs of onward transport to other potential destinations tend to mitigate against WCSB [Western Canada Sedimentary Basin] heavy/oil sands crudes being exported in volume from the Gulf Coast.
As an alternative to Keystone, the State Department examined a scenario where bitumen and possibly Bakken shale crude oil would be:
• Loaded onto rail in Lloydminster and transported to Prince Rupert, British Columbia;
• Transferred to a new/expanded marine terminal at Prince Rupert; and
• Shipped via Suezmax vessels to the Gulf Coast area (Houston/Port Arthur) through the Panama Canal.
If the tanker cars are hauling bitumen, they would be actually loading “railbit” which the report says is “similar to dilbit but with less diluent added” (Dilbit is the standard diluted bitumen in pipelines) There is also, according to the EIS, a possibility that the tank cars would carry raw bitumen without dilutent (although this requires insulated rail cars with steam coils)
New facilities in Prince Rupert would consist of a large rail terminal complex, most likely on themainland, where off-loaded crude oil would be stored until it could be loaded onto tankers, and an expanded port. The entire facility would cover 4,700 acres (1,900 hectares), including 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) for storage and off-loading/on-loading facilities at the rail terminal and approximately 1,200 acres (487 hectares) of land at the expanded port.
The new tank terminal construction would consist of the following:
• Fourteen petroleum storage tanks (11 oil and three condensate);
• A security fence to encompass the tank terminal;
• A 180-foot-wide (55 metre) firebreak area around the outside perimeter of the terminal;
• Electrical supply and distribution (this terminal would be serviced by the Texada Island
Reactor substation); and
• Buildings (control center and civil infrastructure including roads).
Related Link Prince Rupert Port Authority Performance Report
The scenario calls for adding approximately 13 trains with 100 tanker cars per day on the 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) of CN and Canadian Pacific rail lines between Lloydminster and Prince Rupert.
(On the other hand, media mogul David Black who has proposed a refinery at Onion Flats half way between Kitimat and Terrace is considering a rail link to Kitimat if the Northern Gateway pipeline is stopped. Black estimates there would be six trains per day, 120 cars in each direction. While there is usually only one train a day to Kitimat or less, that idea would increase traffic along the Skeena and in his news release Black says
If BC remains set against a pipeline the oil will come to the refinery by rail. CN and the oil companies are keen on this. A great deal of crude in North America is being moved by rail now. The costs are not that different in this case and no permits are required. Rail tankering is, however, not as safe and it is more disruptive. Small towns along the route with level crossings would rue having 12 more trains running through every day.
The State Department scenario says that if the Prince Rupert option actually happened there would be “one to two additional Suezmax tanker vessels per day (430 tankers per year) would travel between Prince Rupert and the Gulf Coast area refinery ports via the Panama Canal.”
The concept of the Suezmax tankers is critical to the west coast, even if none of the scenarios eventually happen, because the State Department report notes that the Panama Canal is now being expanded, so that larger ships, including tankers, can go through the canal after 2014.
The current size is Panamax (maximum size for the current Panama Canal) to Suezmax (the maximum size for the Suez Canal), and, according to the State Department that means even if the even bigger Very Large Crude Carriers are not calling at west coast ports, the newer, larger Suezmax tankers may be.
It should be noted, however, that if WCSB crude oil reaches a Pacific port, regardless of whether by rail or by pipeline, the economics for movement via tanker would favor shipping the oil to Asia rather than the Gulf Coast area. The cost of transporting crude oil via tanker from Prince Rupert to Houston and Port Arthur is estimated to be approximately $4.70/bbl, whereas the transport cost via tanker from Prince Rupert to refinery ports in Asia (e.g., Ulsan, South Korea and Dalian, China), is estimated to be only approximately $1.70 and $2.00/bbl, respectively. The lower transport cost to Asia versus the Gulf Coast area is attributable to shorter trip duration (30 to 37 days to Asia versus about 45 days to the Gulf Coast area), avoiding the Panama Canal toll(about $0.70/bbl), and being able to use a larger tanker because it would not be constrained by the Panama Canal (a VLCC tanker to China would have a capacity of almost 2 million bbl versus a Suezmax tanker to the Gulf Coast area with a capacity of about 884,000 bbl).
So what would happen if there was a scheme to truck bitumen and crude to Prince Rupert and ship via the Panama Canal to the Gulf?
The State Department EIS says:
the transport of the crude oil via tankers from Prince Rupert to the Gulf Coast area refineries would not have any effects on geology, soils, groundwater, wetlands, vegetation, land use, socioeconomics, noise, or cultural resources, other than in the event of a spill.
It goes on to note:
The Gulf Coast area refineries already receive crude oil shipments via tankers from Mexico, Venezuela, and other locations; the Rail/Tanker Scenario is expected to simply displace these sources of crude oil with WCSB crude oil. Therefore, no new construction or new operational impacts are expected to occur as a result of this scenario at the Gulf Coast area refineries or surrounding habitats or communities.
In its study of a possible expanded Prince Rupert terminal that would welcome tankers, the State Department says:
The proposed Northern Gateway terminal at Kitimat, British Columbia was used as a surrogateto estimate the marine facilities needed at Prince Rupert. The Northern Gateway facility isdesigned to handle about 525,000 bpd of crude delivered by pipeline for loading on vessels to theWest Coast and Asia. In addition, it is designed to receive about 193,000 bpd of diluent (a verylight oil obtained from natural gas production) from cargoes arriving by water and discharging into storage at the terminal and moving back to Alberta via a parallel pipeline. The total volumeof about 718,000 bpd approximates the volume of WCSB heavy crude oil that would be loaded at Prince Rupert.
Northwest Coast Energy News Special report links
What the Keystone Report says about Kitimat and Northern Gateway
What the Keystone Report says about the Kinder Morgan pipeline to Vancouver.
What the Keystone Report says about CN rail carrying crude and bitumen to Prince Rupert.
The State Department Environmental Impact Study of the railway to Prince Rupert scenario.
State Department news release
State Department Index to Supplemental Environmental Impact Study on the Keystone XL pipeline