10 Dec 2012

Lessons learned from transporting ‘dilbit’ oil & how they should apply to the Keystone XL pipeline

Written by Jim Pierobon

What happened near Marshall, Mich. in July 2010 illuminates the risks of building the controversial extension of the Keystone XL pipeline. That’s because a six-and-a-half foot tear in a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners spewed more than 1 million gallons of gooey crude oil mined from Canadian tar sands into the Kalamazoo River and just 70 miles from Lake Michigan.

CREDIT: Inside Climate News

What it’s taken to clean up the oil, the lives and businesses it has affected along with the stench and pollution which made the surrounding area inhabitable for 150 family homes is told succinctly in an ebook by Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, The Dilbit Disaster. The book was published earlier this year by Inside Climate News where both are staff writers and wrote extensively about the Enbridge  / Marshall rupture.

The solid red lines represent the proposed extensions of the Keystone XL Pipeline owned by TransCanada. The northern portion would be built on top of the High Plains / Ogallala Acquifer in Nebraska.CREDIT: Wikipedia Commons

“Dilbit” is short for diluted bitumen, the very type of crude oil that the Keystone XL pipeline is to transport from Alberta, Canada across the parts of Montana, South Dakota, the Nebraska portion of the giant Ogallala Aquifer, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to oil refineries near Houston.

What’s disturbing is that little has been done to gauge the impact that a dilbit accident could have even in the face of heightened scrutiny.

The Ogallala is a huge source of fresh water that if spoiled, could create boundless problems if not a catastrophe from which there would be no reasonably full recovery.

Now one would hope that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pipeline Division of the National Transportation Safety Board and TransCanada, owner of the Keystone XL pipeline, would learn from Enbridge’s mistakes and lack of proper maintenance and insufficient risk management. If there is tangiible evidence of that, I hope readers will comment, below.

The fact that this accident occurred a few months after two other energy tragedies partly explains why it never garnered much attention outside of Michigan. At the time oil was spewing from the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico owned by BP after a rupture that killed 11 workers. And the coal industry was reeling after 29 lost their lives during an explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

To be sure, no lives have been lost as a result of the Enbridge / Marshall pipeline rupture. But the potential for human, economic and environmental harm is more far-reaching. Advocates, critics and government officials need to look no farther to digest the potential consequences.

In addition to trying to remove the 1 million+ gallons of tar sands crude oil, 200,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated sediment and debris were found. According to the EPA and state officials, at this writing, the clean up process still has a long way to go.

This is a portion of the Enbridge oil pipeline that broke open in Michigan. What lessons have industry and regulators learned? CREDIT: National Transportation Safety Board

Because tar sands crude is so thick, it doesn’t flow easily through pipelines. So operators steam or strip-mine the crude from the sandy soil it comes from. Then is it diluted with liquid chemicals, including benzene, a known human carcinogen.

Based on how Enbridge either neglected or was not aware of weaknesses in the pipeline (photo), why should regulators and other government officials think other pipeline companies, including TransCanada, would operate any differently — unless new regulations are put in place. You can read about Enbridge and it’s view of pipeline safety and integrity here.

The $3.7 million fine Enbridge paid the EPA in September 2012 made this spill the most expensive U.S. onshore pipeline accident ever. It was supposed to ‘close the books’ on the tragedy. But you can read here about how EPA  still needed to order Enbridge in October 2012 to finish cleanup operations. The completion of that work may be several months, perhaps years, away. Here is where one can track progress — or lack thereof.

In the meantime, at least a few operational (as opposed to pure policy) recommendations offered by the Natural Resources Defense Council here deserve serious consideration. At the top of my list are:

  • The pipeline industry should take special precautions for transporting dilbit.
  • Approval of pipelines carrying dilbit should not occur unless updated and independently-verified safety regulations are in place.

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