2/5/13: This story has been updated to include information from PHMSA received after publication.
Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators had clear guidelines for how quickly they must respond to accidents—but federal regulators don't have the data they need to establish those rules, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent arm of Congress.
The first few minutes and hours after a pipeline accident are considered crucial for effective cleanup and damage prevention. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's 400,000-mile network of large volume transmission pipelines, requires only that operators respond in a "prompt and effective" manner.
The GAO urged the agency to replace this open-ended regulation with performance-based standards—specific, measurable goals that would make it easier to determine when operators have been negligent. To do that, PHMSA would have to set different rules for different types of pipelines depending on their contents, location, operating pressure, pipeline diameter and other factors.
Matthew Cook, a GAO senior analyst and a co-author of the report, said that to create those rules, PHMSA must first determine how fast operators are currently responding to accidents. But the GAO report warned that PHMSA's existing database, where pipeline accident information is filed, is incomplete and often inaccurate.
1/31/13: The story has been updated with comments from industry.
1/30/13: This story has been updated to include information from the EPA that was received after publication.
One of the biggest unknowns in the unfolding Keystone XL debate is the role the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might play.
Because the Canada-to-Nebraska oil pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department, not the EPA, will decide whether to give the project the federal permit it needs. But the EPA will weigh in during the review, and its opinion will carry new weight now that the Obama administration has vowed to make climate change a national priority.
The EPA's position will become clearer when the State Department releases its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the project, which it is expected to do any day now. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review and comment publicly on the SEIS, and the agency has not been shy about criticizing earlier drafts.
"The EPA actually could assert a fair amount of power depending on, basically, how much they want to stick their necks out," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, which opposes the pipeline. "The level of scrutiny this is going to get is pretty intense. With each iteration this goes through, the number of eyes increases."
Two and a half years after the costliest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the company responsible for the disaster is balking at digging up oil that still remains in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
The cleanup has been long and difficult because the ruptured pipeline was carrying bitumen, a heavy oil from Canada's tar sands region. Bitumen is so thick that it can't flow through pipelines until it's mixed with liquid chemicals to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit. When more than one million gallons of dilbit poured out of the broken pipeline in July 2010, the chemicals evaporated and the bitumen began sinking to the riverbed.
Today, regulators and oil spill experts are still struggling to deal with the accident, which was the first major spill of dilbit into a U.S. waterway. The cleanup tools and techniques developed for conventional oil spills—which mostly float on water—are ineffective for submerged bitumen, so experts have had to come up with new methods.
In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's Canadian owner, to clean up several miles of the river where submerged oil is still accumulating. The proposed order told Enbridge to dredge 80 to 100 acres of the riverbed. The request was based on the results of a yearlong study the EPA conducted with oil cleanup experts, Michigan state regulators and a committee of about 15 scientists.
The dredging is needed, the agency said, because the oil could spread into uncontaminated areas of the river if it isn't removed.
The question of how an oil spill from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might affect the Ogallala aquifer was raised again this month, in a report the U.S. State Department will use to help it decide whether to approve or reject the controversial project.
The report concluded that a spill would have little effect on Nebraska's primary source of drinking water, because the oil would spread less than a thousand feet within the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer. The impact on the Ogallala aquifer would be "local," not "regional," said the report, which was prepared by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and HDR Engineering, an Omaha-based consulting firm.
Scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News agreed with the report's conclusions that an underground spill probably wouldn't travel far and that a single accident wouldn't damage the entire Ogallala aquifer. But they also said the report didn't take into account other important factors:
After years of protests and lobbying, the Obama administration is expected to decide within months on the fate of the 1,200-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The State Department is finalizing a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the project, which would ship tar sands oil from Canada, through America's heartland, and to the Gulf Coast via other pipelines.
The agency will use the SEIS—expected any day now—to help determine whether the project is in the "national interest," a term that includes economic, energy security and climate change considerations. Due to the pipeline's high profile, President Obama will play an important role in the decision.
Uncertainty and rumors are rife, partly because Hurricane Sandy reignited concern about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels, but largely because the two top officials who bear main responsibility for the decision will soon be replaced. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will step down this month.
This was the year "dilbit" registered on the U.S. political and public radar in a major way.
Bitumen is a heavy crude oil mined from Canada's oil sands region. The bitumen is so thick that it must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines—hence the term dilbit.
Environmental groups have long opposed oil sands production due to its climate change impacts. But dilbit is also significant because it doesn't behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water. Those risks became apparent in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline spewed more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
Revelations that preventable safety lapses were behind Enbridge's disastrous oil spill in Michigan thrust the issue of pipeline safety into the mainstream this year.
A two-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in July found that a "complete breakdown of safety" at Enbridge led to the 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The spill originated from a ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen (oil from Canada's tar sands) into the water. It was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history and forced residents to relocate, caused health problems and left a mess that's still being cleaned up today.
The NTSB report criticized the Canadian pipeline giant for inadequate safety inspections and other human errors that resulted in Enbridge ignoring the spill for 17 hours.
An agency official compared Enbridge employees to the "Keystone Kops"—a phrase that drew immediate comparisons to a separate Keystone, the Keystone XL pipeline that's being proposed to cross the Ogallala aquifer, the nation's most important source of irrigation and drinking water.
In 1998, activists in Austin, Texas filed a lawsuit to protect their local aquifer from a proposed gasoline pipeline. By the time the project was built, the operator had been forced to add $60 million in safety features, including sensor cables that could detect leaks as small as three gallons a day. Some say the Longhorn pipeline is the safest pipeline in Texas, or perhaps the nation.
Now a much larger pipeline—the Keystone XL—is being proposed across the Ogallala/High Plains aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. Yet none of the major features that protect Austin's much smaller aquifer are included in the plan. In fact, they haven't even been discussed.
The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation's crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day—so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.
The Keystone XL also won't get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin's aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.
For years, the controversy over natural gas drilling has focused on the water and air quality problems linked to hydraulic fracturing, the process where chemicals are blasted deep underground to release tightly bound natural gas deposits.
But a new study reports that a set of chemicals called non-methane hydrocarbons, or NMHCs, is found in the air near drilling sites even when fracking isn't in progress.
According to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, more than 50 NMHCs were found near gas wells in rural Colorado, including 35 that affect the brain and nervous system. Some were detected at levels high enough to potentially harm children who are exposed to them before birth.
The authors say the source of the chemicals is likely a mix of the raw gas that is vented from the wells and emissions from industrial equipment used during the gas production process.
The paper cites two other recent studies on NMHCs near gas drilling sites in Colorado. But the new study was conducted over a longer period of time and tested for more chemicals than those studies did.
"To our knowledge, no study of this kind has been published to date," the authors wrote.
A lawsuit against pipeline company Enbridge Inc. was returned to Michigan state court on Tuesday, after a judge ruled that a group that is trying to stop work on the company's 210-mile pipeline replacement project could not pursue the case in federal court. The ruling didn't address the merits of the case.
POLAR (Protect Our Land And Rights), the nonprofit group that filed the suit, is seeking an injunction against Enbridge, claiming the Canadian company hasn't obtained all the necessary state and local permits.
"We want Enbridge to follow the existing laws," said POLAR founder Jeff Axt, who owns property along the route. "These aren't obstructions recently created to stop a pipeline. These are existing laws, regulations and ordinances that have been on township books for years, that need to be complied with before the project proceeds."
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation: "Once we're back in state court...we'll be prepared to proceed there."