House Testimony on Pipeline Safety Oversight

This morning at eleven o'clock, I will testify before the House Energy and Commerce's Energy and Power Subcommittee on pipeline safety oversight.

My written testimony describes some of the risks that increasing volumes of Canadian tar sands diluted bitumen present to our hazardous liquid pipeline system. Federal regulators need to rigorously assess these risks and ensure that proper safety measures are put in place.

During my testimony, I will make the following statement:

Chairman Whitfield, Ranking Member Rush and members of the Committee, thank you for today’s opportunity to testify on pipeline safety oversight. My name is Anthony Swift. I am a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). NRDC is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment.

As a personal note, coming from West Texas and a family with four generations in the oil and gas business - starting with my great-grandfather who put down some of the country's first oil pipelines in Texas - I value the critical process that ensures the industry’s infrastructure is held to the highest standards of safety.

Over the last few years, the U.S. hazardous liquid pipeline system has been used to transport a substance called diluted bitumen from the tar sands region of Canada.

By itself, bitumen is virtually solid at room temperature – to move it through a pipeline, producers must diluted it with light, highly volatile natural gas liquids. The thick, abrasive mixture, called diluted bitumen, is then pumped through pipelines at high pressure – generating enough friction to reach temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Over the last decade, imports of diluted bitumen have increased six-fold, yet regulators haven’t moved to assess its risks – including both the potential for increased spill frequency as well as greater safety risks when those spills occur.

The U.S. pipeline system may already by showing the strain. For example, pipelines in Midwestern states which have the longest history of transporting Canadian tar and crude have spilled nearly three-times more crude per mile than the national average over the last four years.

Enbridge transports the majority of Canadian diluted bitumen to the United States. In 2010, its Lakehead system had over a dozen spills, accounting for more than half of all crude spilled in the United States last year.

Meanwhile, TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline, one of the first pipelines dedicated to move tar sands crude from Canada to the United States, has had twelve leaks in less than twelve months of operation, the largest which was approximately 21,000 gallons. Keystone is the newest liquid pipeline to ever be deemed by PHMSA an “immediate threat to life, property and the environment.”

During a spill, natural gas liquids in diluted bitumen may increase the risk of explosion and exposure to toxic vapors. As the 840,000 gallon spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan appears to confirm, in a spill diluted bitumen behaves differently than conventional crude, requiring different, more expensive and time consuming cleanup methods than conventional crude spills.

These are early warning signs that present a compelling case that more study is needed on the risks of diluted bitumen.

Building TransCanada’s Keystone XL, a high pressure pipeline that would move up to 830,000 barrels per day of hot, corrosive diluted bitumen through the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer creates hazard that a conventional crude pipeline does not. The Ogallala Aquifer is a critical source of fresh water for the United States – it provides 30% of our irrigation water and drinking water for millions of Americans.

A spill in the deepest part of that aquifer, in Nebraska’s Sandhills, could be a disaster. Given the limits of leak detection technology, which on a pipeline like Keystone XL, would allow a leak of hundreds of thousands of gallons a day to go unnoticed, the worst case scenario is simply one we cannot afford.


  NRDC recommends the following actions:

First, Congress should require that PHMSA conduct a detailed study of diluted bitumen. This study should include both the risks of increased spill frequency as well as unique hazards that such spills may pose to public safety and the environment.

Second, PHMSA should be actively engaged in all stages of major pipeline infrastructure development. This includes issuing comments during the environmental review for significant pipeline projects such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Finally, Congress should direct PHMSA to develop the necessary regulations to protect our major freshwater resources, like the Ogallala Aquifer, from pipeline spills. Under current pipeline safety regulations, aquifers like the Ogallala receive the lowest level of federal oversight.

During the Gulf spill, we witnessed the sad consequences that come of allowing an accident prone company to replace expensive but prudent safety measures with reckless optimism. Let us not court a similar disaster in the deepest waters of our nation’s greatest aquifer.    

Once again, NRDC thanks you for the opportunity to present its views and I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.