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Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Will Canadian Crude Make the Keystone XL Pipeline Leak?

Pipeline corridor near Baytown, Texas

This is the second of a four-part collaborative series by StateImpact Texas and Oklahoma on the economic and environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline. You can read part one of our series on the Keystone XL pipeline here.

The United States loves crude from Canada. No other single foreign country is now providing more imported oil to the U.S. But with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has come the claim that the crude from north of the border is uniquely risky.

Last June in Washington, the House Energy and Power Subcommittee questioned a federal regulator about whether pipelines in the United States were built to handle the kind of crude coming from Canada, diluted bitumen.

“Were your regulations developed with the properties of diluted bitumen in mind?” asked Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California.

Getty Images

Cynthia Quarterman with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminstration

“I don’t believe it was a part of the equation, no,” responded Cynthia Quarterman, head of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

After hearing from critics of the pipeline, Waxman said he was concerned “that the industry is changing but the safety regulations are not keeping up with the changes.That could be a recipe for disaster down the road.”

When it comes to interstate pipelines, the federal government has the lead on setting and enforcing safety regulations. The Texas Railroad Commission’s Oil and Gas Division would have jurisdiction only if a pipeline ruptured and created a threat to the Texas environment.

Diluted bitumen, nicknamed dilbit, comes from oil contained in massive deposits of sand. Steam is used to extract the oil from the sand and the resulting crude is partially processed before it’s piped to refineries.

Critics say dilbit is more corrosive than conventional crude and can “lead to weakening of pipelines”.

“Bitumen blends are more acidic, thick and sulfuric than conventional crude oil” and “contain significantly higher quantities of abrasive quartz sand particles” said a report by a coalition of critics including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When asked to respond, one of the first things people in the Canadian pipeline industry point out is that while the Keystone XL Pipeline project has become a lightning rod for criticism, the dilbit crude it would carry has already been flowing into the United States for years.

Denise Hamsher of Enbridge Energy

“This isn’t new. Enbridge has been transporting these types of products since 1999 in our pipelines,” Denise Hamsher told StateImpact Texas.

Hamsher is head of planning for Enbridge’s $12 billion in new pipeline projects. Enbridge is a competitor of TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL project.

“There have been no incidents of pipelines carrying Canadian crude (that resulted) from internal corrosion despite more than two decades of transporting crude oil,” said Hamsher.

That’s not to say there have been any spills. In July 2010, one of Enbridge’s 30-inch pipelines ruptured in southern Michigan, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of Canadian crude into a creek that flowed to the Kalamazoo River. While an official cause won’t come from government investigators until this summer, Enbridge said internal corrosion had nothing to do with it.

National Transportation Safety Board

Ruptured crude oil pipeline in Michigan

“All you’d have to do is look at the picture of the pipe,” said Hamsher. “There’s no reason or evidence that the leak was at all related to internal corrosion.”

There have also been leaks involving TransCanada’s existing Keystone Pipeline (the Keystone XL is an expansion project). Since it began operating in 2010, the Keystone line—from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma—has had 14 “spills” according to the U.S. State Department’s report on the potential environmental impact of the XL project.

None of the 14 leaks were because of corrosion of the actual pipeline. Instead, the State Department report said they all involved “fittings and seals at pump or valve stations”. The report said all but three of the spills were of less than 100 gallons. The biggest was in North Dakota where 21,000 gallons of crude escaped from a faulty fitting. Most of the oil stayed on the pump station site according to the report. The State Department projected that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would have about one spill a year of over 2,100 gallons. 

TransCanada spokesperson Jim Prescott said the State Department’s environmental impact statement confirms what the company has contended.

Map courtesy of TransCanada

Where the Keystone XL pipeline would go through Texas.

“Don’t take our word for it. Look at the final environmental impact statement which was the result of 41 months of study of this project and reach the conclusion that this oil is no different than the oil that is already in the pipeline infrastructure of the United States,” Prescott told StateImpact Texas.

So corrosion is no problem for such pipelines? To the contrary, it’s one of the leading causes of pipeline failure according to Oliver Moghissi. He’s the past president of NACE International, an association of corrosion engineers.

“Corrosion tends to be number two. Number one is usually outside force damage, usually by an excavator,” Moghissi told StateImpact Texas.

Moghissi works for DNV, a risk management company that did a forensic examination of the blowout preventer from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But while Moghissi said corrosion is a serious threat to crude oil pipelines, he contends there’s nothing in Canadian crude that makes it any more risky than conventional crude to the long-term reliability of a pipeline.

“I don’t agree that it presents a unique kind of corrosion threat,” said Moghissi.

Yet, the issue is hardly resolved in the eyes of at least some in Congress. Under the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Jobs Creation Act of 2011, Congress mandated a study to determine if there’s “any increased risk” of transporting diluted bitumen crude. Last month, a contract was awarded to the National Academy of Sciences which is expected to release the findings of its investigation to Congress by July 2013.

You can read part one of our series on the Keystone XL pipeline here. And check out our topic page, What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.holmstrom Michael Holmstrom

    Now I see that tar sands crude is subject to something called column separation, where in some situations, the diluting solvents becomes a gas & are no longer mixed with the crude in the pipeline. Just turning up the pressure to keep it flowing is not a fix, since that could rupture the pipeline. And, how abrasive is tar sands crude versus other crudes?

  • Cheena1

    From the reading I’ve done, bitumen is the most corrosive and most poisonous – these pipes ‘could’ be better built to take the above into account, but they won’t! They don’t want to spend the $$ to do it, and the ‘slap on the wrist’ they get from each spill is chump change to big oil!! Wouldn’t want to cut into their profits, don’cha know!! My advice is to fight this as long and as hard as you can – here in Canada we are!
    Contrary to what you may read in the msm and/or misleading polls, Canadians do not want this stuff taken out of the ground, they don’t want it being shipped across our land, and they don’t want it shipped into yours!! The problem, the biggest one, is their GREED! and that both US and Cdn federal govts. are in bed with big corps!! They don’t care about the environment, climate change, the destruction it wil cause, the poisoning of our water to steam this bitumen to the surface, or anything else!
    So again, my best advice: Fight it, Fight it, Fight it!!! with everything you can!

  • Guest

    @StateImpact: Thank you for this great article. In the article there is some talk about whether tar sands diluted bitumen imposed higher public safety dangers than normal crude oil pipelines. The answer to this is 100% clearly yes. This is just one of the reasons why so many people are opposed to these pipelines.

    Concerning
    the toxic nature of the tar sands diluted bitumen (dilbit) being forced through
    the pipelines:

    - Here are some interviews
    with people getting sick and possibly dying in Michigan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGmqtsbYJGc
    (and there are many more). I truly wish more people knew about this – maybe you should make an article about this.

    -
    Tar
    sands dilbit is far more toxic than normal crude oil. Near the end of this
    video (21:50) there are reports from the pipeline company stating the content
    of the spill in Michigan (it’s horrible): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TabdIyvRL7c&feature=related.

    Concerning
    the pipeline safety:

    One of the
    problems is that the tars sands oil pipelines are built to live up to the
    quality standards and regulations for conventional crude oil pipelines, because
    there are no quality standards and regulations for tar sands oil pipelines.
    This is completely ludicrous, because there is no comparison as can be seen through
    the facts below (reference: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf):1. We
    are talking about tar sands bitumen, not crude oil.2. Bitumen
    is so thick that it cannot flow as a liquid, so it has to be diluted with other
    chemicals in order to force it through a pipeline – even a 3 foot pipeline such
    as the Keystone pipeline.3. The
    diluted bitumen, also called DilBit, is still 40 times thicker than
    conventional crude oil.4. In
    order to flow through a 3 foot diameter pipeline, the DilBit has to be pumped
    at very high pressure (1440 psi) and high temperature (175 F). This is compared
    to 600 psi and ambient temperatures for crude oil pipelines.5. Just
    for comparison, 1080 psi will sink an American Seawolf Class nuclear submarine.
    Think of what 1440 psi is doing to the pipeline – 24 hours a day, 365 days a
    year.6. DilBit
    is also much more corrosive than conventional crude oil. DilBit contains 15 to
    20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes.7. DilBit
    also contains 5 to 10 times more sulfur as conventional crudes. This can lead
    to increased weakening and embrittlement of pipelines.8. Higher
    temperatures thin the DilBit and increase its speed through the pipeline, but
    they also increase the speed at which acids and other chemicals corrode the
    pipeline.9. Internal
    corrosion has caused more than sixteen times as many spills in the Alberta tar
    sands pipeline systems as for U.S. conventional pipeline systems.Statistics
    and physical characteristics clearly show that the risks are real and eminent
    if we do nothing.

    Here is a
    quote made in a report made by Cornell University:

    “Since
    the first Keystone pipeline began operation in June 2010, at least 35 spills
    have occurred in the United States and Canada. In its first year, the spill
    frequency for Keystone’s US segment was 100 times higher than TransCanada
    forecast.” (reference: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/research/upload/GLI_Impact-of-Tar-Sands-Pipeline-Spills.pdf).

  • Guest

    @StateImpact: Thank you for this
    great article. In the article there is some talk about whether tar sands
    diluted bitumen imposed higher public safety dangers than normal crude oil
    pipelines. The answer to this is 100% clearly yes. This is just one of the reasons
    why so many people are opposed to these pipelines. It would be nice if you
    could make an article dedicated to these facts.

    Concerning the toxic nature of the
    tar sands diluted bitumen (dilbit) being forced through the pipelines:

    - Here are some interviews with
    people getting sick and possibly dying in Michigan:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGmqtsbYJGc (and there are many more). I truly
    wish more people knew about this – maybe you should make an article about this.

    - Tar sands dilbit is far more toxic
    than normal crude oil. Near the end of this video (21:50) there are reports
    from the pipeline company stating the content of the spill in Michigan (it’s
    horrible): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TabdIyvRL7c&feature=related.

    Concerning the pipeline safety:

    One of the problems is that the tars
    sands oil pipelines are built to live up to the quality standards and
    regulations for conventional crude oil pipelines, because there are no quality
    standards and regulations for tar sands oil pipelines. This is completely
    ludicrous, because there is no comparison as can be seen through the facts
    below (reference: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf):

    1. We are talking about tar sands
    bitumen, not crude oil.

    2. Bitumen is so thick that it
    cannot flow as a liquid, so it has to be diluted with other chemicals in order
    to force it through a pipeline – even a 3 foot pipeline such as the Keystone
    pipeline.

    3. The diluted bitumen, also called
    DilBit, is still 40 times thicker than conventional crude oil.

    4. In order to flow through a 3 foot
    diameter pipeline, the DilBit has to be pumped at very high pressure (1440 psi)
    and high temperature (175 F). This is compared to 600 psi and ambient
    temperatures for crude oil pipelines.

    5. Just for comparison, 1080 psi
    will sink an American Seawolf Class nuclear submarine. Think of what 1440 psi
    is doing to the pipeline – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    6. DilBit is also much more
    corrosive than conventional crude oil. DilBit contains 15 to 20 times higher
    acid concentrations than conventional crudes.

    7. DilBit also contains 5 to 10
    times more sulfur as conventional crudes. This can lead to increased weakening
    and embrittlement of pipelines.

    8. Higher temperatures thin the
    DilBit and increase its speed through the pipeline, but they also increase the
    speed at which acids and other chemicals corrode the pipeline.

    9. Internal corrosion has caused
    more than sixteen times as many spills in the Alberta tar sands pipeline
    systems as for U.S. conventional pipeline systems.

    Statistics and physical
    characteristics clearly show that the risks are real and eminent if we do
    nothing.

    Here is a quote made in a report
    made by Cornell University:

    “Since the first Keystone
    pipeline began operation in June 2010, at least 35 spills have occurred in the
    United States and Canada. In its first year, the spill frequency for Keystone’s
    US segment was 100 times higher than TransCanada forecast.” (reference:
    http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/research/upload/GLI_Impact-of-Tar-Sands-Pipeline-Spills.pdf).

  • Tom

    The disastrous Enbridge Kalamazoo spill in Michigan dumped over a MILLION gallons of this toxic sludge into the river system there, so saying it spilled “hundreds of thousands” of gallons doesn’t get across the true magnitude of this catastrophe.

    And guess what, they are STILL trying to clean that sludge up (because after the cancer-causing chemicals used to dilute the bitumen like benzene have separated out, the heavy sludge bitumen sinks to the bottom). And they STILL haven’t figured out how to do it effectively.

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