New pipeline projects should be put on hold given the safety risks of tar sands oil pipelines

Section of pipe from Kalamazoo spill c National Transportation Safety Board.jpg

When the BP Gulf oil spill disaster occurred, oil companies pushed tar sands as the “safer” alternative. When a few months later, the Enbridge tar sands pipeline in Michigan spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, we were still told that tar sands pipelines were no more risky than conventional oil pipelines.

After spending the last few months carefully gathering research on the characteristics of the diluted bitumen that increasingly is flowing through America’s tar sands pipelines, we know that the risks of spills are high and U.S. safety regulations are not enough to protect special places such as the Great Lakes, the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer.

Today, NRDC released a new report – together with our partners the Pipeline Safety Trust, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club. The report, Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks, shows that by its nature raw tar sands oil or diluted bitumen is more corrosive and more likely to result in pipeline failures. Once we had collected information on the more corrosive nature of diluted bitumen, we were curious if we could see a difference between the Alberta pipeline system which regularly carries diluted bitumen and the U.S. pipeline system where transportation of diluted bitumen is a newer activity. We looked hard to find a pipeline spill comparison that would have us comparing apples to apples and found that when looking at records of pipeline spills caused by internal corrosion, Alberta had an astounding sixteen times as many spills as the U.S. system. Of course, this is just an indicator that something is wrong, but it is the kind of indicator that should be ringing loud warning bells for an Administration that has just had to deal with a disastrous oil spill in the Gulf and with the largest U.S. tar sands pipeline spill in Michigan. The same questions about oversight and safety hold true for pipelines carrying raw tar sands oil. Surely the health and safety of our communities and special places is worth more than helping Big Oil turn a profit for its risky tar sands operations in Canada?

With the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in the middle of its environmental impact assessment by the U.S. State Department, you would think that getting a better understanding of what raw tar sands oil in a pipe means for our environment and safety is more important than ever. Yet the State Department has resisted including a thorough analysis of the safety risks of diluted bitumen pipelines in their draft environmental impact statement. It is time for the health of the Great Lakes, the Ogallala Aquifer and the Nebraska Sandhills to outweigh the wishes of Big Oil. After all, Big Oil does not have a great track record when it comes to putting public health and safety first.

So let’s follow the report as we documented the many ways in which diluted bitumen is a danger to our health and environment:

  • First – we have more diluted bitumen coming into the United States now than in the past. And the oil companies plan for the amount to grow rapidly in the coming years. America has long been an importer of tar sands, but it used to mostly be as already upgraded synthetic crude oil. Without public warning or safety standard adjustments, U.S. pipelines are increasingly being expected to carry the corrosive raw form of tar sands oil – diluted bitumen.
  • What is it about diluted bitumen that adds to the risk of spills? Bitumen blends are more acidic and have more sulfur than conventional oil. Because they are thick, they require pressure and heat to move through a pipe. They also tend to contain small abrasive particles of quartz and silicates. It is a bit like sandblasting the inside of the pipe.
  • Even worse, leaks in diluted bitumen pipelines can be difficult to detect. This was likely one of the reasons for the spill of a record 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in August 2010. Because of the nature of the diluted bitumen mixture, a leak can easily be misinterpreted by pipeline operators who think that it is the type of problem that pumping more oil through the pipeline can solve.
  • Once a spill happens, cleanup of tar sands takes a different set of responses for which we are not well prepared. We can see that in this week’s announcement by EPA that in the case of the tar sands oil spill into the Kalamazoo River the submerged oil remains a problem and will mean continuation of the ban on wading, fishing and swimming in the river possibly through fall 2011.
  • Finally, raw tar sands oil in our rivers, lakes and aquifers is nothing but trouble. Once leaked, diluted bitumen can form an ignitable and explosive mixture. And it contains a lot of nasty toxins that can harm human and wildlife health in the long and short-term.

There are some simple steps that the U.S. government can take to protect communities from oil spill tragedies. The report spells these out – including the need to put proposed tar sands pipelines such as the Keystone XL project on hold until we can evaluate the need for new U.S. pipeline safety regulations and put a system in place to deal with the special characteristics of raw tar sands oil. The irony is that we are putting the Great Lakes, the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk from unnecessary pipelines. America is on the path to reduce our dependence on oil with vehicle fuel efficiency standards, public transit, smart growth and electric vehicles. Tar sands oil pipelines tie us into decades of continued dependence on the riskiest form of oil and into decades of unsafe pipelines. We can do better by our communities, our special places and our wildlife.