Don't let industry public relations oil the waters on the dangers of tar sands pipelines

This week Reuters reported that the oil industry couldn’t see much difference between raw tar sands oil (diluted bitumen) and conventional oil. This is hardly surprising considering that industry’s interest in obscuring the potential dangers of raw tar sands oil from the public. Concerns about pipeline safety – especially when it comes to pipelines transporting tar sands oil – have been heard throughout North America this year. The list of pipeline accidents that have caught the public’s attention is long. It includes the nearly 1 million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan a year ago, the spill of over 40,000 gallons of oil into the wild Yellowstone River this summer, and the over 30 leaks from TransCanada’s brand new Keystone pipeline in its first year of operation in the US and Canada. So, it is hardly surprising that the oil industry is pushing back with a public relations offensive. But public relations will not get the public the information it needs about what is in our pipelines. Public relations will not prevent spills into our rivers and aquifers. And public relations will not ensure effective clean up. What we need is a detailed study of the characteristics of diluted bitumen, what it means for pipelines and what it means for clean up when a spill occurs. Then we need to revisit our pipeline safety regulations to prevent spills, but also to make sure there is greater public transparency and information about what flows through our pipes.

The engineers quoted in the Reuters article themselves showed surprise (shared by us at NRDC) that there were not clear studies on the nature of diluted bitumen and what it might mean to the inside of a pipe in terms of corrosion. In fact, the Canadian National Energy Board engineer consulted said he would be interested to see a study on this issue. Given that diluted bitumen is flowing in increasing quantities in U.S. pipelines, it is reasonable to request an independent study on what the characteristics of diluted bitumen in a high pressure, high temperature pipeline can mean in terms of the potential for leaks and spills.

The industry often says that they have an interest in preventing pipeline spills. However, they also have an interest in minimizing the costs of construction, materials and operation of their pipelines while maximizing oil flow. Unfortunately, it seems that safety often suffers in this balancing exercise. Certainly a company such as TransCanada that claims the over 30 spills in its first year of operating the Keystone pipeline are “business as usual” seems to be choosing short-term profit over safety.

The industry can go after certain points in NRDC’s report on tar sands pipeline safety risks, but it cannot deny that there are many credible indicators that diluted bitumen may cause more pipeline leaks. For example, the NRDC report used refineries as one indicator because that is one of the few places where there is data on the characteristics of diluted bitumen. Contrary to what some industry voices claim, refineries do make a good indicator of problems with corrosion of diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen is processed before going into a refinery to make it less corrosive, yet even with this step, refineries are built and monitored with the risk of corrosion in mind. Long distance pipelines such as the Keystone, the Alberta Clipper and the proposed Keystone XL pipelines receive diluted bitumen before they have gone through preliminary processing and while they still contain high quantities of salts, water and particles.

In an ideal world, industry would put public safety as its highest priority. However, in the real world, we need ways to deal with the safety risks of diluted bitumen in a pipe before we let it travel across our rivers and aquifers. There are good indications that diluted bitumen is more likely to leak from pipelines than conventional oil. What we need is a thorough, independent evaluation, new regulations and better public transparency and information. It makes sense to understand the risks and protect against them before building yet another diluted bitumen pipeline such as TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The Yellowstone River and the Ogallala Aquifer should not serve as a “test case” for understanding the safety risks of tar sands pipelines.

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