Tar Sands Apologists Admit Not Reading Pipeline Safety Report Before Slamming It; Second Swing Also Misses Truth

By Susan Casey-Lefkowitz and Anthony Swift, authors of the report Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks

Controversy surrounding Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks, the report the we released yesterday along with the Pipeline Safety Trust, National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club, has underscored the need for more transparency from Canada’s tar sands industries. The report highlights safety and public health issues associated with DilBit (diluted bitumen)-- a significantly more acidic and corrosive petroleum derived from tar sands oil -- being delivered with increasing frequency through underequipped American pipelines. The Alberta Government’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) reacted quickly and defensively in a press release questioning many of the report’s conclusions. We responded here.

However, in an embarrassing move, Alberta’s ERCB was forced to put out a second release late last night conceding that they had not actually read the new pipeline report before attempting to debunk it. In both responses, the ERCB’s claims remain disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.  

While critics have claimed our report made apples to oranges comparisons—the arguments they used might be better equated to swiss cheese: soft and full of holes. In order to paint a prettier picture, both statements by ERCB intentionally pointed in the direction of data that did not cover the impacts of diluted bitumen. Instead of taking our research head on, the industry provided yet another example of wanton attempts to use jargon and technicalities to greenwash an exceptionally damaging product.


The following are answers to the main inaccuracies in the Alberta Government response to the pipeline safety report. The ERCB is trying to hide the ball when it comes to diluted bitumen’s impact on pipelines. This is not a game that they should be playing with questions so critical to the health of our communities and special places.

Diluted Bitumen Spill Rates as a Warning

Regulators have a responsibility to track potentially threatening occurrences. What we see in the ERCB’s response is confirmation that they are not tracking diluted bitumen and do not really know how many spills there are. NRDC contacted ERCB to find out this information and were directed to the firm that collects the pipeline spill data for Alberta. The report uses the most credible data looking at a comparison of hazardous liquid pipelines as an indicator that diluted bitumen may cause pipeline failures due to internal corrosion. ERCB’s rebuttal is crafted to take out the pipelines most likely to carry diluted bitumen and to use a time period in which there was little diluted bitumen flowing through the larger pipelines. This is disingenuous at best and purposefully misleading at worst.  As far as we can tell, the ERCB does not know what its diluted bitumen spill rate is because they do not track oil spills based on product. Perhaps the calculations in the NRDC report should encourage the ERCB to begin to track by product, as it should encourage the United States to track and regulate by product.


The ERCB incredibly makes the claim that diluted bitumen is not corrosive and that it does not contain sulfur. It is difficult to understand how the ERCB can make this claim given the chemical composition of diluted bitumen. The ERCB seems to say that once you mix bitumen with the diluents such as natural gas liquid condensate it changes characteristics. They also claim that all sulfur is removed prior to transportation as diluted bitumen. These claims are false.  Diluted bitumen in no way “closely resembles” conventional oil as claimed by ERCB. Corrosivity of diluted bitumen is based on several of its characteristics:

  • Diluted bitumen contains 15 – 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crude. We know this because the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers provides this information in its technical documents about diluted bitumen.
  • Diluted bitumen also has high concentrations of chloride salts which can lead to chloride stress corrosion in high pressure pipelines according to a report by Baker Hughes petroleum consulting firm.
  • Refiners have also found diluted bitumen to contain higher quantities of abrasive quartz sand particles and aluminosilicates according to the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Association.
  • Higher temperatures, such as those found in the higher pressure diluted bitumen pipelines, increase the speed at which acids and other chemicals corrode the pipeline – an accepted industry rule of thumb is that the rate of corrosion doubles with every twenty degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature.
  • Sulfur also contributes to corrosivity through a process call sulfide stress corrosion cracking. ERCB may claim that sulfur is removed before diluted bitumen comes into U.S. pipelines, but U.S. refiners say differently. The diluted bitumen that US refiners are getting has five to ten times more sulfur than benchmark crude. For example, a significant portion of the $3.4 billion “modernization” program underway at BP’s Whiting Refinery in Indiana is devoted to sulfur-specific equipment (a new gas oil hydro-treater and an expansion of the sulfur recovery complex). 

The tar sands pipeline safety report was meant to sound a warning bell in the United States about the increased amount of diluted bitumen heading our way in pipelines that may not have adequate safety standards to deal with it. The out-of-proportion reaction from the Alberta Government shows that perhaps Canada also should be taking a closer look at how it regulates and tracks diluted bitumen in pipes. Certainly it raises questions for proposed new diluted bitumen pipelines such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline across British Columbia in the same way it does for the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas.