A lump of Canadian tar sands oil (bitumen) as mined and before chemical dilution to facilitate flow through pipelines

The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently proposed $3,700,000 in civil fines against Enbridge.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had cited the company for failing to properly maintain the pipeline.

In the same breath, the NTSB criticized the US PHMSA for not having stronger federal regulations to protect communities from disastrous oil spills as happened in the Kalamazoo River watershed.

The Kalamazoo serves as a cautionary tale for federal regulators and communities along the proposed routes for Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and other tar sands pipeline projects under consideration.

We must push for stronger language and controls from our regulating agencies for three reasons:

First, because pipeline companies and trade groups universally insist  that safety regulations aren’t necessary because it’s in their own best interest to prevent spills.


The evidence from the PHMSA’s investigation suggests otherwise.  It suggests the foolishness of depending on pipeline operators to regulate themselves because they respond to preventable spills only after the spill happens.

Enbridge ignored the cracks they discovered in 2004 in Line 6B, the section of the Keystone Pipeline that flooded the Kalamazoo River watershed in 2010.

Furthermore, it was a year after the spill before Enbridge finally announced plans to replace the 75 miles of corroded pipeline on Line 6B.

The truth of the matter is that when the companies have to choose between expensive safety measures and saving money, they choose in favor the well-being of their stockholders rather than the well-being of the environment.

Though the PHMSA itself actively engages after a spill, it most often takes a passive role in matters of spill prevention and regulatory compliance.

They delegate those matters to the pipeline operators themselves.

Second, we need tougher regulations because pipeline companies routinely use overly optimistic risk assessment guidelines.

The Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill was an order of magnitude greater than the worst case scenario anticipated by Enbridge.  They cheerfully projected an ability to control a leak within 8 minutes of their Edmonton  control room’s receiving information that such an event had occurred.

Instead of 8 minutes, it took Enbridge 17 hours to determine their Line 6B had burst, and then only because a utility worker in Michigan called their hotline to let them know they had a situation.

In examining the risk assessment factors TransCanada presented regarding its proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the NTSB found, again, the same flawed , overly optimistic methodology used by Enbridge—yet had no comment about that section of the Keystone XL proposal.

Also, the NTSB investigation of the tragic and preventable 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric gas line in San Bruno, CA, found that overly optimistic risk assessments were one of the causes of the blast that killed 8 people.

The major flaw in pipeline companies’ risk assessment plans is their assumption that they will instantly recognize a major spill and that the only variables will be how quickly they can shut the pipeline down.

They insist their estimates are examples of best business practices.

Maybe some of them even believe it.

And third, we must insist on tougher federal regulations because Canada’s tar sands oil is unique and doesn’t behave as the oils we’re accustomed to dealing with in our pipelines. #79 lists the following environmental impacts regarding oil sands mining and processing:   “. . . greenhouse gas emissions, land disturbance, destruction of wildlife habitat and degradation of local water quality.”

Like the high-volume hydraulic fracking process, oils sands mining and processing are different in nature and in their threats to the environment from traditional processes to extract oil.

Remember that tar sands oil starts out as a gooey lump of bitumen that needs to be diluted with water and corrosive chemicals before it can flow.

The diluted bitumen is now called dilbit.

Once flowing, the gritty paste has a corrosive, scouring effect on pipelines intensified by the presence of the acidic chemicals used in the dilution process.

The US needs unique regulations to deal with the unique compound moving through the Enbridge Keystone Pipeline and that may move through TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

Accordingly, the National Academy of Sciences is considering the question of the degree to which dilbit is more hazardous to transport than conventional crude and what aspects of the transport of dilbit requires special precautions and regulations.

Michigan Department of Natural resources with tarred Painted Turtle  Photo credit Michigan DNR

Empirical observation suggests that the US must enact tougher pipeline regulations to protect against spills and against other dangers to the environments/habitats of people and the natural world.

Above all, it must give the pipeline regulatory agency the authority to enforce its regulations.

Sources:  Huffington Post, July 5, 2012           New York Times, July 2, 2012   Transcript of PRI’s Living on Earth, July 6, 2012    Bloomberg News, July 24, 2012 #79


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