Canadians are saying no to tar sands pipelines: risks outweigh the benefits

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We have long heard threats from the tar sands oil interests that if America won’t allow tar sands pipelines to cross our communities, they’ll just send the oil across Canada to Asia instead. But Canadian communities don’t like the idea of risking their fishing rivers, farms and coastal waters to a tar sands oil spill any more than U.S. communities do. In fact, pipeline company Enbridge’s proposal for the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline that would cross British Columbia is in real jeopardy.

After refusing to take a stance on the Northern Gateway project, just this morning, the Globe and Mail reported that the Premier of British Columbia said that the risks of a tar sands oil spill outweighed the economic benefits of a tar sands pipeline across the province. And the British Columbia government has outlined a series of concerns and minimum requirements. Yet, given the deep concerns of First Nations, municipalities and others in British Columbia, what is needed is a clear message to echo what we hear coming from Canada:  no tar sands pipelines and no tar sands oil tankers.  

These are the same concerns that are driving opposition to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would cross the U.S. to the Gulf Coast and the Trailbreaker project that would bring tar sands east through the Great Lakes and New England. Bringing dirty and expensive Canadian tar sands across our rivers and through our communities brings us the risk of climate change and tar sands oil spills all to benefit the oil industry. We can do better for our communities.

Tar sands pipelines are more likely to spill and their spills are harder to clean up. We see that in everything we have learned from the Enbridge tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan which is sadly seeing its second anniversary of cleanup efforts this week. The truth is that we don’t know enough about what tar sands does to a pipe and how to clean it up. If the oil industry had its way, the United States would be facing an invasion of tar sands in pipelines that are not equipped and through communities who are not prepared. The tar sands oil industry is playing a risky game of chance with our health and waters. It is doing this with the heightened risk of climate change from the energy intensive tar sands, but also with the heightened risk of difficult to clean up tar sands oil spills.

But we are seeing an increased focus on the safety of tar sands pipelines. Today, the National Academy of Sciences is listening to briefings by experts on the nature of raw tar sands oil (diluted bitumen) to try to determine whether it is more likely to leak than conventional oil and if it perhaps needs special regulation.  This is in response to new U.S. pipeline safety legislation requiring such a study.

And just recently, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the spill of the 2010 1 million gallon Michigan Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill led the NTSB director to compare the pipeline company Enbridge to the bumbling Keystone Kops. A mixture of human error and a substance like tar sands that is more likely to leak, more difficult to detect leaking and more difficult to clean up is a recipe for disaster. Enbridge clearly has a bad record when it comes to spills as is documented in a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. But all pipeline companies seem to have trouble keeping tar sands from leaking.

Let me summarize a few of the tar sands versus conventional oil differences from NRDC’s own research:

  • Tar sands is significantly more acidic than conventional crudes historically transported in the U.S. pipeline system. This higher corrosivity is a known issue for refinery operators, but not yet well studied when it comes to pipelines.
  • Diluted bitumen also has higher sediment content, meaning that under the high pressures necessary to move the thicker substance it is like sandblasting the inside of the pipe.  
  • The fact that raw tar sands is more like soft coal than like oil means it needs to be diluted with chemicals and moved at higher pressure which in turn causes higher temperatures. This all increases the risk of stress cracking.

The NTSB investigation found that Kalamazoo rupture was caused by a combination of stress corrosion cracks and external corrosion defects, which resulted in the 6’ corrosion fatigue rupture that lead to America’s largest inland pipeline spill with a price tag so far of $800 million.

The lessons from the Kalamazoo River spill are important for all other tar sands pipelines.

TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry the same raw tar sands oil from Canada over America’s heartland to the Gulf Coast for export TransCanada has already had over a dozen leaks in its recently built and supposedly state-of-the-art first Keystone pipeline to the Midwest. This is not a safety record that inspires trust.

The proposed Enbridge Midwest expansion and Trailbreaker pipeline project – would bring tar sands oil through the Great Lakes and across fragile New England rivers and lakes to Portland, Maine for export. Folks in New England are not happy about this and have been protesting tar sands oil putting their communities at risk, most recently in a series of solidarity actions with the Kalamazoo spill.

The people and First Nations of British Columbia have made it clear that the time for calling for more studies or conditions is past. Communities in British Columbia should not have to bear the risk of tar sands oil spills so that the tar sands oil industry can profit by accessing export markets for their product. It is no wonder that the scathing report from the National Transportation Safety Board was a final straw in helping Canadians realize that the risks of tar sands pipelines are just too high.


Follow the We Are the Kalamazoo – Tar Sands Spill Solidarity Actions at:


Listen to people in the path of tar sands pipeline and refinery expansion talk about their concerns for their families and communities. Short videos at:


Take action to make the environmental review of the re-application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline be strong and comprehensive: