The rule is "safety first" - so why not with tar sands pipelines?

By Susan Casey-Lefkowitz and Anthony Swift

When almost one million gallons of tar sands oil leaked from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, it caused us to take a hard look at the safety concerns around the new flood of raw tar sands oil coming into the United States. As we documented in our recent report, we found that diluted bitumen is very different from the conventional oil that our U.S. regulations cover – and it has the potential to cause more leaks if not properly regulated. Yesterday, we sent a letter to U.S. pipeline regulators providing more background and technical details to back up the concerns raised in our report. We also had a specific ask regarding the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline – we’ll explain:

Tar sands pipeline safety concerns are particularly relevant now as the State Department has said that they will release a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) in mid-April for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring raw tar sands or diluted bitumen from Canada to the U.S. Gulf coast crossing the Ogallala Aquifer. We have been asking repeatedly for this new environmental review to include a thorough look at the safety issues of diluted bitumen. The first draft EIS barely touched on them. However, we see no evidence that pipeline regulators (the Pipeline Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation) have completed the type of thorough assessment of the safety risks of diluted bitumen that should be included in the SEIS. So we are asking that the State Department wait and not release the draft SEIS until they have this type of assessment from the Transportation Department. The safety of the many communities along the pipeline’s route and the eight States that depend on the Ogallala Aquifer for freshwater are worth the additional time to get the pipeline’s environmental review right.

Now, let’s outline some of the main points from both our report and the follow-up technical letter. These points also respond to the claims that the Alberta government and the oil and pipeline industry have been making since our report came out in mid-February.

There are many indications that the characteristics of diluted bitumen pose increased risks to pipeline systems. Diluted bitumen has not been transported through large pipelines in Alberta or the United States for enough time to have case studies establishing its long term effect on pipeline systems. However, chemical assays of diluted bitumen blends, reports from refiners receiving diluted bitumen, large spills in the United States involving diluted bitumen or pipelines that carry it as part of their product mix, and the safety record of the Alberta pipeline system all raise questions that need to be addressed as an increasing amount of diluted bitumen is coming through U.S. pipelines.

Some of the risks presented by diluted bitumen that are documented in technical detail in the letter include:

  • Heavy volumes of hard minerals that can erode steel over time. The Keystone XL could transport as much as 153,000 pounds of minerals like quartz and pyrite according to Canada’s National Centre for Upgrading Technology (NCUT).
  • Significantly higher concentrations of sulfur, which can cause catastrophic failure in high strength steels such as those used in Keystone and Keystone XL.
  • The diluted bitumen blend of bitumen and natural gas liquids creates a viscous, unstable substance that is not at all the same as conventional crude oil.
  • Diluted bitumen pipelines run at high temperatures which increase the speed of corrosive chemical reactions.
  • The U.S. onshore pipeline system was not designed with diluted bitumen in mind. Other heavy crudes from Venezuela and Mexico generally come directly into the U.S. from tankers and do not use the onshore pipeline system.
  • When compared with the U.S. pipeline system, the Alberta pipeline system has a more than three times as many pipeline spills greater 26.3 gallons of product and sixteen times as many spills due to internal corrosion.
  • Diluted bitumen is highly toxic and presents health risks to residents and emergency responders.
  • Cleaning up diluted bitumen spills poses significant new challenges.

These warning signs merit serious consideration and due diligence by our pipeline regulators. We all learn that “safety first” is an important rule for life. It is an even more important rule when it comes to pipelines carrying toxic tar sands oil across freshwater sources such as the Ogallala Aquifer. There is no need to rush this pipeline. Our existing pipelines already have more than enough capacity to meet our needs and this pipeline will not be bringing new oil to America for roughly ten or fifteen years. Surely we can take the additional months needed to have the Pipeline Safety Administration provide a thorough assessment of the safety risks of diluted bitumen before the State Department releases its draft supplemental environmental impact statement.

This is one of series of blogs on issues that need to be considered in the draft SEIS for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. See our blogs on the SEIS announcement and on why community interests need to be taken into account in the SEIS.