Press Release

Pipeline Problems: New Tar Sands Oil Products Increase Likelihood of Spills

Report warns that corrosive nature of growing Canadian tar sands oil exports will increase risk of spills along America’s controversial Lakehead and Keystone XL pipelines
Josh Mogerman, 312-651-7909

WASHINGTON, DC (February 16, 2011) – A report released today highlights the elevated risk of pipeline spills throughout the nation as a result of new corrosive oil products being increasingly delivered to the United States. The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pipeline Safety Trust, National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club, Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks, shines a spotlight on diluted bitumen which is a raw form of tar sands oil that is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil and requires increased heat and pressure to move through pipelines. These unique characteristics brings with themnew liabilities to the integrity of the American oil pipeline system that is currently unprepared to handle this product, and new threats to the waterways and aquifers that cross paths with these pipelines.

“As Canada delivers a greater and greater percentage of our oil, their corrosive products will take a greater and greater toll on our pipelines -- and that creates a huge safety risk we are not prepared for yet,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council International Program and a report co-author. “It is frightening to see how little research has been done on this issue. But as we saw in the Kalamazoo River last summer, there is real danger if we continue to ignore this problem. We need new safety standards in the United States that ensure our protection from raw tar sands oil in our pipelines. Planned tar sands pipelines, such as the Keystone XL project from Montana to Texas, should be put on hold until their risks are understood and addressed.”

Tar sands diluted bitumen is new and untested in the United States. In 2000, tar sands producers exported 100,000 barrels of it to the United States but plan to increase deliveries to as much as 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019. 

The report shows how this new product brings a significantly different chemical composition from other petroleums that creates difficulty in transportation and cleanup when spills occur. Due to its thicker nature, increased heat and pressure are necessary to move it through a pipeline. Tar sands diluted bitumen has five-to-ten times as much sulfur as conventional crude and more chloride salts. Both substances can weaken pipelines and make them more likely to break during a pressure spike. Refiners have reported finding more quartz sand and other solid material in tar sands diluted bitumen. At high pressure, this material basically sandblasts the inside of the pipe.

“Our belief is that the report raises some important questions about transporting raw tar sands crude that should be clearly answered before we continue to allow it to flow through existing and proposed pipelines that are under a regulatory scheme that never considered these concerns,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and a co-producer of the report. “We need answers to the valid safety concerns that diluted bitumen is more corrosive and contains more solids than traditional crude and may be more difficult to deal with if it spills.”

The pipeline system in Alberta, which is newer and carries more tar sands oil, has experienced 16 times more safety incidences due to internal corrosion than the U.S. pipeline system -- making it a strong indicator of the corrosive nature of raw tar sands oil. Despite the unique risks inherent to the transport of Canada’s acidic diluted bitumen, American regulators have not yet created any new safeguards or regulations for this new product as it begins to flow across American soil.

Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks looks at the elevated risks in the Lakehead system in the Upper Great Lakes and the controversial Keystone XL line, identifying especially vulnerable locations in the pipelines’ path; including sensitive and economically important watersheds and the Great Lakes themselves, which account for 1/5 of the world’s fresh water supply. Last summer’s Lakehead system failures that dumped nearly a million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River and fouled suburban Chicago have elevated concern over possible impacts along the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline pathway from Alberta to Houston -- particularly in Nebraska where it would pass through the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer which is the drinking water source for millions and essential to American agriculture. Local groups will be conducting their own release of the report in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Michigan, Texas, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

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