EASTERN ONTARIO — Does the Port of Johnstown’s future potentially include the outward flow of Alberta bitumen onto the St. Lawrence Seaway for transport to the rest of the world?
While conceding some familiarity with the idea, the port’s general manager, Robert Dalley, insisted this week there have been “no discussions at this point” about handling bitumen — a heavy oil extracted in Alberta — at the port, located east of Prescott, Ont. “But it would be an interesting discussion,” Dalley added.
The theoretical notion depends on a pipeline to carry bitumen to Johnstown, possibly a less ambitious revival of TransCanada Pipeline’s abandoned Energy East project reaching only as far as Eastern Ontario.
Flowing the piped-in material onto vessels at the local port would “require a little bit of infrastructure change” at the facility, Dalley offered, also acknowledging that TransCanada’s proposed pipeline — a conversion of an existing gas line — “is not that far from the plant.”
Below, a Google Map showing the Port of Johnstown’s location on the St. Lawrence Seaway, just off Highway 401 in Eastern Ontario — 90 km south of Ottawa and 185 km west of Montreal.
The Port of Johnstown already handles hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and salt and boasts a pair of slips to accommodate large ships.
“Call me in a month,” Dalley suggested, when specifically asked if “political types” might be talking with the port about sending bitumen through the site. “I don’t want to go into it right now. It has not been discussed.”
But Yann Bossel, a South Mountain, Ont., farmer who met with politicians on Parliament Hill during the “United We Roll” protest last month, told NVN today that “the idea has been floated.”
Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes MP Michael Barrett, whose riding includes the port, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
NVN began investigating the issue after a columnist at this news outlet, Garfield Marks, suggested piping Alberta’s landlocked bitumen to Thunder Bay, where ships could take it over the Great Lakes and down the Seaway.
Eight barges running between Johnstown and Montreal
Logistically, however, piping the product much farther east, down to the St. Lawrence River at Johnstown, “has a couple of advantages over the Thunder Bay scenario,” according to Warren Mabee, director of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. The concept “would avoid some of the environmental concerns as it skips the Great Lakes and some of the trickiest parts of the St. Lawrence Seaway (specifically the Thousand Islands),” he said by email. “There is an advantage in that the Energy East line, if built, would utilize pre-existing pipes that run down the Ottawa Valley; you would theoretically need to build much less ‘new’ pipeline and thus would face far less scrutiny than you would if you built all the way to New Brunswick [as per the original Energy East proposal].”
“I should also point out that there are many groups that are lining up against the use of seaway for oil shipments – it would face many hurdles!” cautioned Mabee.
Resurrecting a shorter version of Energy East would also be “complicated” and take a “few years” to receive approval, he also predicted.
However, he agreed that a system of barges picking up in Johnstown could, in theory, handle the 1.1-million-barrel-per-day output originally envisioned for the Energy East pipeline — at least during the nine months of the year that the Seaway operates. The simplest version would see eight or nine 118,000-barrel barges travelling back and forth to Montreal every 4.2 days. An equivalent amount of storage would have to be constructed in Johnstown. In Montreal, the barges would be offloaded onto the biggest supertankers for transport to international markets and/or the Irving refinery in New Brunswick.
If supertankers can’t reliably reach Montreal, the next closest option downstream is Quebec City, which would raise the number of required barges to 22 or 23, according to Mabee, along with an equal hike in storage volume at Johnstown.
“Yes, in theory, you could do this,” he said of the whole strategy. However, it would amount to a tripling of oil shipments above current levels on the Seaway, “not a small addition!” he pointed out, also warning of “lots of pushback, from folk in Montreal and from folk along the Seaway.”
TransCanada Pipelines would also need to get on board, and the company doesn’t sound interested at the moment. “Right now, we have no plans to revisit Energy East,” said company spokesperson Jennifer Link, adding that TransCanada is focused today on $36-billion in other capital projects.
Still, the idea of flowing piped-in bitumen through the Port of Johnstown and onto the Seaway would help Alberta’s bitumen producers reach the global marketplace, according to Mabee.
“I think that it certainly increases the potential number of buyers!” he exclaimed. “Yes, I think that you could certainly get to lots of markets that way.”
“Right now, building more pipes to the USA would probably not solve our cost differential problem – it’s accessing new markets in Asia and Europe which would help.”
The Port of Johnstown is owned and operated by the Township of Edwardsburgh/Cardinal.