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Michigan Oil Spill Increases Concern Over Tar Sands Pipelines

Michigan oil spill
A worker helps capture and clean up oil from the Kalamazoo River.
Extensive damage to Michigan waterways shows the risk of transporting tar sands oil

Up to a million gallons of oil spilled from a ruptured pipeline into the waterways of southwestern Michigan last week in what the federal government is calling the most destructive oil spill in Midwestern history.

Owned by Enbridge, the pipeline was likely carrying controversial tar sands oil, industry analysts and environmental groups tell OnEarth. Enbridge's CEO says that's not the case. But there's no doubt the damaged pipe was part of the company's 1,900-mile network that transports oil mined from Alberta in northwestern Canada, where the tar sands deposits are located, to Midwestern refineries.

As federal officials assess the extent of last week's damage, the spill is raising new concerns about plans by Enbridge and other oil companies to build more pipelines and increase the U.S. reliance on a form of fuel whose extraction and refinement causes vast amounts of environmental damage.

Heavy crude began gushing from a 30-inch pipeline buried in marshy ground near Battle Creek, Michigan, more than a week ago. By the morning of July 26, the stench of petroleum filled the air, and thick globs of oil covered the fast-moving Kalamazoo River.

A week later, fears that the oil would flow 80 miles downstream to Lake Michigan, wiping out fish and fouling beaches during tourist season, have been allayed. More than 800 workers flown in from across the United States managed to corral the runaway oil on a 25-mile stretch of river.

The damage likely exceeds $100 million, although no official estimates have been made, according to EPA officials. And state and federal officials say the spill will require months to clean up and years of monitoring for potential air and groundwater pollution. Enbridge will be charged the cost of the cleanup and has promised (as with BP on the Gulf Coast) to pay all legitimate damage claims from residents.

But environmental experts say the impact of this spill is only a preview of greater potential problems to come if proposed new pipelines are built.

What Was in the Pipe?

Alberta's tar sands hold the second-largest oil deposit on the planet, after Saudi Arabia's oil fields. But while Middle Eastern oil is liquid and can be pumped out through conventional means, tar sands are essentially a gooey, gritty mixture of petroleum and sand known as bitumen.

Extracting oil from them requires vast amounts of water and energy, emits copious greenhouse gases, and tears up extensive swaths of boreal forest -- one of the world's largest-remaining intact ecosystems. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called Alberta's tar sands operations "the largest and most destructive project on Earth." (See OnEarth's Fall 2007 story "Canada's Highway to Hell.")

The tar sands oil is refined largely in the Midwest, and vast pipeline systems move it across the continent. Enbridge Energy Partners, a Houston-based subsidiary of the Canadian company Enbridge Inc., says the oil in Pipeline 6B, which ruptured last week, was moving from a transfer facility in northwestern Indiana to a refinery in Ontario.

Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel told OnEarth that the oil originally came from Cold Lake, Alberta. Daniel maintains that the leaked oil was not derived from tapping tar sands and said the area where it originated does not have "oil sands" (the industry's preferred name).

But Alberta's Department of Energy says Cold Lake has at least 41 producing tar sands operations. A spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said there is conventional oil production in the area, as well.

Richard Girard, a researcher with the Polaris Institute who authored a recent in-depth profile of Enbridge's operations, said that based on his research, Pipeline 6B would almost certainly have been carrying oil derived from tar sands. The Polaris Institute is a Canadian advocacy group that opposes expansion of the tar sands industry.

There is no universally accepted definition of exactly what constitutes tar sands. But environmental leaders say that regardless of the exact composition of the heavy crude in the Michigan pipeline, the spill demonstrates the growing hazards of the tar sands industry.

"It's coming from the same monster," Girard said. "It's oil attached to sand underground, regardless of how they get it out."

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, NRDC's international programs director, says the mystery over the oil's origin drives home the need for more transparency.

"It's important to know what is in the pipe when a spill happens," she said. "If this is tar sands oil, it likely needs to be dealt with in a different way" because of higher levels of heavy metals and other properties, she said.  "But there's no requirement that they need to publicly report or even privately report what they're bringing in."

Controversial Expansion Efforts

Although environmental leaders say the Michigan oil spill could have significant implications for other proposed Enbridge projects, the company's CEO says it will learn from the Michigan disaster and increase safety procedures. The company wants to begin shipping tar sands oil to China by building a pipeline from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, where it will fill up tanker ships.

The Canadian government is considering the proposal, which has faced opposition from First Nations communities in the pipeline's path. Environmentalists are also concerned about spills from the pipeline and tanker ships in the rough waters off British Columbia's coast.

Residents, Native American tribes, and environmental groups are also worried about a proposed Enbridge pipeline that would cross Illinois, and another project called the Keystone XL. That's a 2,000-mile pipeline proposed by Enbridge rival TransCanada that would transport oil across the American heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast. In June, 50 U.S. Congressmen signed a letter saying the Keystone XL pipeline should not be approved until its impact on global warming is considered.

The proposed pipelines across the U.S. are driven in part by the fact that Canadian refineries are approaching maximum capacity, according to industry experts. Midwestern refineries are seeking to expand, and new refineries may be built on the Gulf Coast.

Refining tar sands creates significantly more air, water, and greenhouse gas pollution than refining standard crude oil. NRDC is currently challenging an air permit for a BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, where the company has proposed dumping more sludge into Lake Michigan as part of an expansion to process more tar sands oil.

Critics say the Michigan spill shows that Enbridge and other companies cannot be trusted to transport oil across hundreds of miles of ecologically sensitive land, including the Oglala aquifer in Nebraska, which provides water to eight states and lies under TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

There have been at least five other pipeline spills that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil this year, including 126,000 gallons from an Enbridge pipeline in North Dakota in January, according to an analysis by the Sierra Club. Girard's report logs 610 spills and leaks from Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2008, totaling 132,000 barrels -- or almost half the volume of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

In January, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned Enbridge that the company was failing to comply with regulations regarding corrosion on Pipeline 6B. The agency, part of the U.S. Transportation Department, said Enbridge could be subject to fines of $100,000 per violation per day if it did not take action, but no enforcement was pursued at that time, according to the agency's letter.

"Tar sands supporters leaped on the Gulf spill to make the point that tar sands are safer because you don't have to drill underwater," said Ann Alexander, a staff attorney in NRDC's Midwest office. "But the Enbridge spill pops that balloon."

UPDATE 08/13/10: Enbridge CEO admits pipeline spilled tar sands oil

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and journalism instructor at Columbia College and in a non-profit youth program. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About ... READ MORE >
Dear Kari, This was a regrettable industrial accident, and will be cleaned up. Put in perspective the oil sands after 35 years of mining cover 0.072% of the province of Alberta (72/10,000). There have been some exaggeration scares about this. The carbon footprint, if there was such a thing, is 4 % of Canada's 2% contribution to the anthropogenic 2% of annual CO2 increase. However, 0.04 x 0.02 x 0.02 is 0.000016% x 390 ppm = 6 parts per billion; this amount is likely captured by the boreal forest of Alberta for food. 'Big Oil' controls 7% of the world's resources and reserves. REALLY big oil controld 93% of the worlds resources and reserves in Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Brazil. Before you slam your friendly neighbor you need to do the math. Moreover, the kerogen shales of the Rockies contain 1,000 years of natural gas resources and some of that is already commercial. Think of the creative positive before you condemn the businesses that brought prosperity to the western world. Go local natural gas! CO2 is plant food. Climategate demonstrates pure unadulterated unscientific bias and as far from real wisdom as it gets...
"Oil sands" = industry shill. Your Big Oil-manufactured talking points about CO2 and Climategate only further expose your true colors.
I don't know the details: where artesian gets his figures from (probably out of an industry funded study) but artesian's certainly done some funny math: "0.072% of the province of Alberta (72/10,000)." 72/10,000 = 0.72%.
Of course consumers dont want to get a fish in a polluted area like this. BP, or British Petroleum, has applied for a permit to drill for petrol in the Gulf of Mexico, which would be a deep water site if the permit is approved. British Petroleum suffered huge losses financially and to its reputation after the petrol rig explosion and oil spill in April of 2010. However, the company is eager to continue operations. The company has not had its application approved as yet, so no drilling has started as yet. The proof is here: BP applies for permit to resume deep water oil drilling