Pipeline spill underlines fears of new tar sands development

The type of oil that flowed through the Enbridge pipeline when it ruptured in Calhoun County on July 25 is far more damaging to the environment than regular crude at every stage, from extraction to refining, and poses higher risks when spilled into lakes and rivers.

Despite denials by Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, the million gallons of oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo River watershed last month is known as Cold Lake crude and comes from dense natural asphalt deposits in Alberta, Canada that are widely known as tar sands.

In a conference call with reporters last week Daniels emphasized that the company’s Cold Lake Crude is extracted by steam distillation rather than mining, though he acknowledged that the resulting product is so thick that it must be diluted by a third with light crude in order to be pumped through pipelines.

According to the U.S. Dept. Of Energy 95 percent of Canadian oil reserves are in the tar sands. The Michigan oil spill comes as the Canadian oil industry is lobbying for approval of an immense new pipeline to carry tar sand crude to the U.S.

Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Cold Lake Crude is definitely from tar sand.

“Whatever else they want to say about it,” she said, “if it is coming from Cold Lake and they got it out from in situ, that is just what it is.”

“There are two ways to get tar sands,” she said. “One is to strip off forests and mine. When crude is too deep to strip mine out they use ‘in situ’ — they drill down and extract the stuff and melt it off.”

Alexander said that in situ extraction uses massive amounts of water and natural gas and produces three times the greenhouse gases of conventional extraction. It also creates tailing ponds, she said, where water filled with toxic goo from oil operations attracts and kills migratory birds.

Though some emphasize that Canadian oil can help the US reduce dependence on Middle Eastern suppliers, increasingly regulators, lawmakers and activists are focusing on the environmental problems associated with its extraction and processing.

Opposition to expanding use of tar sands has gotten more press in Canada, where people worry that it will contaminate water, use up the nation’s natural gas supply, require massive deforestation and displace native people.
Activists there have taken out ads urging tourists to boycott Alberta on environmental grounds and responded to the Michigan spill with a sit-in that spurred arrests at Enbridge corporate offices in Vancouver.

Awareness of the environmental costs of increased reliance on Canadian crude is growing in the US as well, but oil refineries in the Great Lakes region are in the process of expanding their capacities to process Canadian tar sands.
The expanded operations at BP’s Whiting, Indiana refinery are expected to increase the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent — the equivalent of adding 320,000 cars to area roads according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune. The NRDC is fighting the air permit for this expansion.

In Detroit the Marathon Oil refinery is expanding its tar sand operations despite protests by local residents who say it will exacerbate the already serious air pollution in southwest Detroit.

In a July 16 letter to the Dept. of State, EPA highlighted how much more environmentally destructive the use of tar sands oil is compared to regular crude oil, noting that greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian tar sands crude “would be approximately 82% greater that the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis. To provide some perspective on the potential scale of emissions, 27 million metric tons is roughly equivalent to annual co2 emissions of seven coal fired power plants.”

EPA also warned that increased processing of crude from tar sands could damage the air and water.

We believe that the potential human health impacts associated with both air emissions from refineries and the potential contamination of drinking water supplies from an oil spill have not been fully evaluated. We recommend that the State Department prepare a health risk assessment to specifically address these issues as they relate to low income, minority and Tribal populations.

The agency stated that heavy tar sands crude, with its reliance on proprietary blends of diluent — a mix of chemicals and lighter hydrocarbons that make the heavier tar sands oil thin enough to flow through a pipeline — might require additional emergency response planning and said that the agency has not been given sufficient information on the composition of oil that would run through the pipeline.

As mentioned earlier, without the actual data explaining the oil’s chemical and physical characteristics, the efficacy of traditional “floating oil” spill response equipment is in question. Again, this reflects the importance of obtaining all relevant information related to the bitumen oil/synthetic crude’s chemical and physical properties.

In a story for the NRDC’s magazine last week Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, NRDC’s international programs director, said that it’s important that people know what type of oil is in the pipe during a spill because tar sands oil is likely to require different cleanup measures than conventional oil.

And it isn’t just the damage of extracting and refining the tar sands oil that causes the environmental problems, it is also the makeup of the oil itself.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey tar sand oil has vastly more aluminum, copper, nickel, lead, titanium and vanadium than other forms of oil. Cold Lake crude in particular is also known to have around three times as much sulfur as conventional oil, a factor that EPA has warned could lead to pipeline corrosion; others have warned it can result in increased air pollution.

To this point, however, consideration of the specific the type of oil spilled here does not seem to be entering into the emergency response plan. On a recent conference call with reporters representatives from the EPA said that the agency does not have a chemical profile of the oil that has contaminated the Kalamazoo River, though the agency has taken samples of the spilled crude to analyze.

The use of tar sands oil may have even been one of the reasons why the Enbridge control room in Alberta was unable to identify a leak in the system for at least 12 hours after the leak was first reported to local officials.

Richard Kuprewicz, an expert in oil pipeline safety with 40 years experience, says that the thicker viscosity of the tar sands oil and the use of diluents to thin it out for pipeline transport also create frequent pressure warnings in the pipeline monitoring system, false positives that can make it more difficult to detect a real pressure problem in the pipe, which can indicate a leak.

Back to News index page