Soon They Will Be Shipping Oil From the Alberta Oil Sands in Little Plastic Tubs

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©. CN Innovations/ Canapux

Canadian National Railways figures out a crazy new way to mix oil and plastic – to what end?

The politics of oil are tough in Canada. So what if Justin Trudeau bought a pipeline for $4.5 billion to move Alberta oil, angering everyone outside the province? Albertans still put on their yellow vests and accuse him of treason. You can't make anybody happy.

Albertans are mad because oil companies are making about 200,000 barrels a day more than they can ship by pipeline, thanks to delays in construction caused by court challenges brought by environmentalists and Indigenous peoples. Oil companies can barely give the stuff away; Canadian oil was recently selling at a US$50 discount.

Alberta oil was always really expensive to make; it took almost as much energy to boil it out of the rocks as they got out of it. It is also expensive to transport; it is as thick as molasses and won't flow in the pipelines so they have thin it with a diluent, usually natural gas condensate or naphtha. Since there is insufficient pipeline capacity, a lot of it is going by tank car, but there are not enough of them.

Canapux from CN on Vimeo.

But there are a lot of hopper cars kicking around, so Canadian National Railways put its scientists to work and have figured out a new technology to mix bitumen from the oil sands with plastic made from recycled grocery bags and encase it in more plastic, so that instead of shipping oil it's shipping what look like little hockey pucks of very viscous oil. Cleverly, they call them Canapux. The patent application describes them in greater detail as:

patent drawing

Patent US10125321B2 /Public Domain

A solid pellet comprising a core surrounded by a shell, the core comprising a mixture of crude oil refinery feedstock and a hydrocarbonaceous polymer, the polymer having a melting point temperature of at least 50° C....the mixture having a first and a second non-miscible phases, the first phase being a crude oil refinery feedstock rich phase and the second phase being a polymer rich phase, the polymer having a solubility in the crude oil such that the crude oil refinery feedstock rich phase maintains compatibility with the oil refinery to allow separation of the crude oil refinery feedstock rich phase into said constituents.

canapux process

Canapux/Screen capture

There are some real advantages over other ways of shipping oil. The pucks float, and are sealed in their protective plastic wrap, so they are not dangerous in an oil spill. They are a bulk commodity that can go in open rail cars and transported like coal or grain.

transportation of canapux

Canapux/Screen capture

Eric Atkins writes in The Globe and Mail that it is a great way to ship oil to Asia, where there is no discount for Canadian oil:

CN says that based on current oil prices, the move to Asia is a money maker. That’s because the discount on Canadian oil at U.S. markets does not apply there. CN pointed to a study released earlier in 2018 that said it would cost about US$23 to ship a barrel of bitumen as CanaPux to Asia from Alberta, including packaging, rail and vessel charges. This is just less than the US$24 it costs to transport a barrel of diluted bitumen by train to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

But what's the carbon footprint of making Canapux?

CN Innovations does not tell us what the carbon footprint of this process is. Alberta bitumen is already carbon intensive, and here they are mixing it with plastic bits and wrapping it up in more plastic, all of which is already a hydrocarbon product. Then they are shipping all that plastic along with the bitumen, only to shred and heat the pucks at the other end to separate out the plastic, which they say will be recycled, although they do not say how they will clean all the oil off it. More likely it will just be burned.

In other words, it will probably all be far more carbon intensive than the usual Alberta oil sands product.

It is all totally crazy. Justin Trudeau would personally roll barrels of oil down the TransCanada Highway if it would make Albertans happy but they would rather string him up or talk Albexit. Meanwhile, every little puck that gets shipped will contribute to the climate catastrophe that is coming up very quickly, and which Albertans would rather totally ignore.

Now the leader of the opposition is thinking that dumping the Paris accord is good politics. Dealing with climate change has a good chance of tearing the country apart; this seems to be a worldwide trend.