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This article is part of our series Counter-Counter-Counter-Point. For an article a bit more jazzed about the pipeline, see Dylan Kruger’s take.


Canadians should know all there is to know about the Northern Gateway pipeline project. For years we’ve endured a painful barrage of TV and internet ads designed to overwhelm us with information. We’ve witnessed large public protests, web campaigns, and legal challenges. We’ve had a deafening public discourse on the matter. Yet, in a bizarre twist of fate, it seems the public discourse was so deafening that Canadians didn’t hear any of it. Think of it like failing a class because there were too many professors in the room. It’s a damn nuisance, and it isn’t our fault, but we still have much to learn.

On Tuesday, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May stepped forward to teach Canadians a lesson. “It’s a two-way flow of toxic materials,” she said. It was unclear whether she was talking about Question Period or the pipeline until she continued, “One set of tankers pulls up to Kitimat…bringing a toxic substance they call diluent…which they then put in a pipeline which runs from Kitimat to Alberta.” Interesting. The public conversation around Northern Gateway has so far focused on the pipeline carrying dilbit from Alberta to Kitimat, then off to BC. May suggests we need to shift our focus. What is this terrible substance called diluent?

Thankfully, Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers stepped in to answer that question: “It is a light hydrocarbon. So it is kind of like gasoline.” Pipeline folks mix diluent with solid bitumen (“tar sand”) to create dilbit, a substance that can more easily flow through a pipeline. So diluent means smooth flow through a pipeline, just like photoshop means smooth sailing through the Douglas Channel. Good to know! Any other mysteries left to solve?

Stringham thinks so. He wants to change the public perception of tar sand, and he’s going to do it in the kitchen. He thinks of warm, bathed tar sand as “Italian salad dressing” in which the oil rises to the top. He says that adding diluent to heavy oil is like adding “cream in coffee, or Kool-Aid in water.”


Coming to a supermarket near youBen Nelms

Coming to a supermarket near you
Ben Nelms


If there’s one take-home point here, it’s that Joe Oliver was wrong when he said that tar sands tailings are being cleaned so well that “you’ll be able to drink from them.” Listen to Greg Stringham, Joe- we can already drink from them. While most Canadians might shy away from drinking salad dressing, the Kool-Aid and coffee comparisons make clear that tar sand is relatively harmless, and probably delicious. Sure, it might cause juvenile diabetes and lead to mild addiction, but those aren’t climate change concerns.

While the current public discourse addresses Northern Gateway as a Canadian energy issue, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a human development initiative designed to address food shortages and starvation in Asia. But don’t believe everything you hear in a crowded classroom…this is just food for thought.