Study: Tar Sands Pipelines Pose Serious Risks
Just after dawn on July 26, 2010, homeowners along Talmadge Creek near Marshall, Michigan, awoke to the chemical stench of raw fuel. Several bolted outside and followed the sickening stink to the creek’s wooded banks and found its source: a torrent of black goo, unlike anything ever experienced in Michigan or anywhere else in the upper Midwest, heading downstream to the Kalamazoo River.
The black goo originated some 2,000 miles away, in the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada. There, a massive extraction effort has damaged thousands of square miles of forests, polluted water supplies, and poured tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere each year -- all in an effort to provide a new source of transportation fuel to quench American demands, as well as alleviate concerns about reliance on oil from the Middle East and find energy sources closer to home.
What the Michigan spill revealed, however, is that an expanding constellation of processing plants, refineries, and transcontinental pipelines needed to produce and transport tar sands oil to American markets also puts communities and water supplies across the U.S. at risk. And it’s a risk that, until recently, was little known or understood by the communities that stand in harm’s way.
In a new report released today, NRDC and several partner groups demonstrate that tar sands oil is more difficult and dangerous to transport than conventional crude. Known as DilBit, short for diluted bitumen, it’s thick as peanut butter and more acidic, highly corrosive, and abrasive. Yet the NRDC report says that pipeline developers and operators are using the same designs, operating practices, and materials to transport DilBit that work for conventional crude.
Those practices might have contributed to the deterioration of the steel pipeline outside of Marshall and its rupture last summer -- a disaster that’s now considered the worst oil spill in Midwest history and caused more than $500 million in damage. If changes aren’t made, the result could be more accidents, spills, and polluted waterways, says the report, which calls for a moratorium on pipeline development until stronger safety measures and regulations can be developed.
"Because people in the United States hadn't had any experience with raw tar sands oil, they didn't know how dangerous it can be," said Anthony Swift, an NRDC tar sands expert and co-author of the study, prepared with the help of two other national environmental organizations and the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit group that works with the pipeline industry to increase safety.
The Alberta tar sands conservatively contain 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s enough to satisfy U.S. demand at current rates of consumption -- 7 billion barrels annually -- until 2035. Energy companies say they intend to more than double production from 1.5 million barrels a day currently to more than 3 million barrels per day by 2025. But tar sands oil requires extensive processing before it can be used as transportation fuel, and Canadian refineries have reached capacity, so U.S. and European oil companies are spending $20 billion to expand and retrofit refineries in the Midwest and Texas Gulf to turn tar sands into oil.
But first, they have to get it there, which requires a costly and expansive pipeline network. During the past year, Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline developer that owns the pipe that ruptured in Michigan, opened a $1.2 billion, 1,000-mile pipeline from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. Enbridge’s main competitor, TransCanada, opened a $5 billion, 2,147-mile pipeline known as Keystone to refineries in Illinois and storage depots in Oklahoma. The company wants to build a third major pipeline, known as Keystone XL, nearly 2,000 miles from Alberta to Oklahoma and onward to the Gulf Coast, at a cost of $7 billion.
Oil companies are now shipping 500,000 barrels of DilBit daily to U.S. refineries. The peanut butter-thick substance contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crude oil, five to 10 times as much sulfur, high concentrations of chloride salts, and higher concentrations of abrasive quartz sand particles.
"This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration," the NRDC report says.
In order to get it to flow through pipelines, raw tar sands bitumen is diluted with natural gas condensate and then moved in heated pipelines under high pressure. The study asserts that the higher temperatures and higher internal pipeline pressures can create gas bubbles within the pipelines, deform the metal, and lead to ruptures caused by pressure spikes.
The report’s authors found convincing statistical evidence of the hazards of transporting DilBit. From 2002 to 2008, Alberta’s pipeline system, which has a longer record of transporting the raw diluted bitumen, experienced 218 spills per 10,000 miles of pipeline. That was a rate of spills from corrosion approximately 16 times greater than the 13.8 corrosion-related spills during the same period along the same length of pipeline in the U.S.
Canadian pipeline builders, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the American Petroleum Institute did not respond to repeated email and telephone messages seeking comments about the report’s findings.
But communities from Montana to Texas in the path of pipeline development are beginning to raise questions about safety. Several member of Congress, too, have expressed concern. New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank R. Lautenberg introduced a bill this month -- Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 -- that would require a full assessment of whether federal safeguards are adequate for tar sands crude.
This new activism and comes as the State Department considers TransCanada’s proposal to build Keystone XL, the first big tar sands pipeline to attract intense public scrutiny. The two earlier tar sands pipelines were quickly granted permits to cross the U.S. border with Canada during the Bush administration.
On July 16, 2010 -- just 10 days before the Kalamazoo spill -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an 18-page letter that directed the State Department to more carefully assess the considerable risks to wetlands, rivers, and communities. The proposed pipeline route crosses native prairie in Kansas and South Dakota, endangered whooping crane habitat along the Platte River in Nebraska, and runs past dozens of small towns.
The State Department is expected early this year to decide how to proceed with its environmental and safety review for Keystone XL. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of NRDC’s International Program, who has studied tar sands issues extensively and is a recognized national expert, said she expects the State Department to undertake additional studies and open a public comment period that could last up to 90 days.
In Michigan, meanwhile, people are still contending with the consequences of last summer’s spill. Residents have filed more than 2,370 claims on everything from medical bills to hotel stays to property repairs as a result of the accident, according to company figures. A class-action lawsuit is in development. Enbridge said its cleanup costs could reach $550 million, according to Canadian press reports. All but $35 million to $45 million will be paid by its insurers. Cleanup work is continuing and, the company has bought out 71 homeowners whose property was affected.
The company repaired the rupture and reopened the pipeline in September. The Suncor refinery in Sarnia, Canada, and the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, have resumed processing DilBit into fuel.