Canadian Crude Poses No Extra Corrosive Threat, Report Finds; Enviros Say That

Canadian Crude Poses No Extra Corrosive Threat, Report Finds; Enviros Say That

Emma Bryce
Published: 07/01/2013

 (Adapted from photo by Ray Bodden / CC BY 2.0)


Just as President Obama detailed his climate change plan on Tuesday, a federal report came out that found diluted bitumen, the thick oil being extracted from Canadian tar sands, no more corrosive than other crude. Known as ‘dilbit’, the substance would be transported down Keystone’s proposed pipelines. Tar sands advocates used the findings as fodder for their argument that the Keystone XL is safe. Environmental groups, however, say the findings miss the larger point: that Keystone increases the risk of spills regardless.

The level of dilbit’s corrosive power has been a question for some time now, with no clear answers. But environmental groups have suggested before that due to the increased force and higher temperatures required to send the sludge-like crude down pipes, lines transporting dilbit are subject to greater risks of corrosion. The new report, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences at the behest of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), calls that concern into question.

From the report:


The committee that produced the report did not find any pipeline failures unique to the transportation of diluted bitumen…The committee’s comprehensive review did not find evidence of any specific aspect of the transportation of diluted bitumen that would make it more likely than other crude oils to cause pipeline releases.


Yet green advocates say these findings don’t address the bigger worry. “The National Academy of Sciences study sidestepped the most important question about tar sands pipeline spills: How do we clean them up?” Noah Greenwald at the Center for Biological Diversity said in the Center’s news release.

The issue is not so much corrosion, environmental groups protest, but rather:


1) Whether Canadian crude would have harsher environmental effects than other crude in the event of a spill, and

2) How much the sharp increase in crude oil that Keystone XL would bring might also increase the likelihood of spills


“Tar sands spills have disastrous consequences and can’t be fixed,” Greenwald said. “Comparing tar sands spills with other oil spills is apples and oranges. It doesn’t make sense,”. Those fighting the pipeline point to the cleanup difficulties that followed in the wake of dilbit spills at Kalamazoo in 2010, and in the city of Mayflower earlier this year. During the latter, wild animals took a hit, and ducks, beavers, and otters were brought into rescue centers to be seeped into Lake Conway, a popular fishing spot, and then into the Arkansas River—something which ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the spill, had previously denied. This is a problem because dilbit sinks in water, and takes longer to clean than other crude, some reports say.

“The question that needs to be addressed is whether the recent influx of Canadian heavy crude that is flooding the nation’s pipeline system presents an increased risk to our communities, land and water,” Anthony Swift, a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times. He said that this question was a core concern as the Obama administration nears its decision on Keystone.

But the PHMSA, which requested the report, said these issues were beyond the scope of its study. The National Resources Defense Council reports on their blog:


“The agency limited [the National Academy of Sciences’] scope of work to whether the transportation of diluted bitumen by transmission pipeline has an increased likelihood of release compared with pipeline transportation of crude oils with “similar density and viscosity.” The finding that diluted bitumen tar sands doesn’t pose a greater risk than other thick heavy crude provides little comfort.”


Secretary of State John Kerry will soon make his decision about Keystone XL, which he will pass onto President Obama for consideration. Which way the president will go is still up in the air. During Obama’s speech last week announcing his climate plan announcement, he touched briefly on Keystone, saying that it would be in the nation’s interest only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

While the president’s recognition of the issue in his climate speech left some feeling optimistic, environmental groups were careful to point out that the gateway for administrative approval is still open. Audubon has called on he president to oppose this “harmful project.” Whatever happens, it’s a sticky situation, and will remain so in months to come.