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Transporting tar sands oil (Part 2)

The Kalamazoo River on July 30, 2010, after the Enbridge pipeline broke.
Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan
The Kalamazoo River on July 30, 2010, after the Enbridge pipeline broke.

The Enbridge pipeline that broke and spilled into the Kalamazoo River last summer was carrying raw tar sands oil.

Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Grymala says the company ships both conventional crude, and tar sands oil through its pipelines. She says in recent years they’ve been getting an increasing amount of tar sands oil.

“Because there’s being more produced (sic), and there’s more of a demand for it in the United States.”

This increase in tar sands oil transport worries environmentalists and pipeline safety advocates.

Anthony Swift is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He co-authored a report called Tar Sands Safety Risks.

The report says raw tar sands oil has as much as 20 times more acid and is more corrosive than traditional crude oil. Swift says transporting this type of oil could lead to more pipeline breaks.

He says while tar sands oil is relatively new to U.S. pipelines, it has been flowing through Canadian pipelines much longer.

“We did kind of a mile by mile comparison of the Alberta pipeline system to the U.S. pipeline system. And we found that the Alberta pipeline system had 16 times as many leaks of 26 gallons or greater than the U.S. system per pipeline mile.”

Swift says the Alberta pipelines had more leaks, even though it’s a newer system.

He wants the U.S. government to study raw tar sands oil before allowing more of it to flow into the U.S.

The federal government approved two permits in recent years for the construction of new pipelines from the Alberta tar sands into the U.S.

Andy Black is president of the Association of Oil Pipelines. He says tar sands oil is no different than other heavy crudes. And he says the government stamp of approval means tar sands oil can safely flow through the pipes.

“In neither of those cases have the government agencies suggested that the product was any more corrosive, and they haven’t required any conditions to accommodate this alleged increased corrosivity.”

But we couldn’t figure out how the federal government decided that raw tar sands oil is safe to send through the pipelines.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, called PHMSA, is the federal agency that monitors pipelines. PHMSA declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an email, the agency said tar sands oil is regulated the same as any other hazardous liquid, such as light crude or gasoline. They said all hazardous liquids have to meet federal standards. PHMSA sent us to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for more information. A spokesperson at FERC says they don’t regulate what flows through the pipelines. They sent us back to PHMSA.

The U.S. State Department decides whether a pipeline can cross the Canadian border into the U.S. But they declined to comment for this story.

Lorraine Grymala, the spokesperson at Enbridge, did offer some answers.

“There’s a technical standards group, maybe that’s the best way to put it, that basically are the ones that dictate what can go in the line, what’s safe to go in the line.”

Grymala says this group is called the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It is a trade group representing the oil and gas industries. So, she’s saying that in Canada the oil and gas industries decide what’s safe to put through the lines.

The Canadian government also has oversight. In an email, a spokesperson for the Canadian National Energy Board said they need to know what’s going to flow through a pipeline before they approve its operation. But like in the U.S., Canada does not distinguish between raw tar sands oil and other heavy crudes in the pipelines.

Environmental and pipeline safety groups are urging the U.S. government to spend more time studying tar sands oil, and the effect it might be having on the nation’s aging pipeline system.

-Julie Grant for The Environment Report


Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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