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Pipeline Corrosion and Safety Issues Take Spotlight in Keystone XL Debate

Canadian regulators question the report, and TransCanada defends safety record, as a key U.S. senator endorses approval for the controversial pipeline

Feb 18, 2011

WASHINGTON—Environmental organizations are recommending that the U.S. State Department put a controversial and potentially dangerous Alberta-to-Texas oil pipeline on hold until safety issues are fully understood and addressed via government oversight.

Pipelines transporting oil sands crude raise the risk of spills and damage to waterways, aquifers, ecosystems and communities because they are carrying a highly corrosive and acidic blend of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate, according to the report released this week.

And the researchers are standing by their conclusions about the dangers of pumping Canadian heavy crude across this country's mid-section, despite their research being challenged by an Alberta regulatory authority as being flawed and misleading.

The Natural Resources Defense Council joined research forces with the Pipeline Safety Trust, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club to publish "Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks."

"As Canada delivers a greater and greater percentage of our oil, their corrosive products will take a greater and greater toll on our pipelines," report co-author Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of NRDC’s international program, told reporters in a Wednesday teleconference. "As we saw in the Kalamazoo River last summer, there is real danger if we continue to ignore this problem. We need new safety standards in the United States that ensure our protection from raw tar sands oil in our pipelines."

At issue is Keystone XL, a 1702-mile, $7 billion pipeline that Calgary-based TransCanada wants to construct from tar sands mines in its home province of Alberta to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. The State Department is in the midst of updating a draft environmental impact statement for the project.

Map of Keystone and Keystone XL pipelines

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team is tasked with granting a thumbs up or down to TransCanada's request for a presidential permit to build and operate infrastructure being designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

A decision on the multi-billion dollar proposal is expected in the second half of this year. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

"Tar sands extraction in Canada destroys boreal forests and wetlands, causes high levels of greenhouse gas pollution, and leaves behind immense lakes of toxic waste," the report states. "Less well understood, however, is the increased risk and potential harm that can be caused by transporting the raw form of tar sands oil [bitumen] through pipelines to refineries."

TransCanada Defends Safety Record

A spokesman for TransCanada, which already operates two other oil pipelines in this nation's heartland, says safety is paramount and that Keystone XL will be monitored 24/7.

"We are building the newest pipeline in North America," TransCanada's Terry Cunha told SolveClimate News, adding that satellite technology sends data every five seconds from 16,000 data collection points to a monitoring center. "We have a world-class control center that has both global and local leak detection systems that allows us to promptly detect a leak of any size. Pumps and motors at any station can be remotely started and stopped."

Cunha pointed out that thousands of miles of pipeline crisscross North America and that they are the safest and most efficient way to move energy products.

More Imports, Higher Risk

The 16-page report describes diluted bitumen as a raw and thick form of tar sands oil that is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil and requires increased heat and pressure to move through pipelines. Those attributes make it more difficult to clean up after a spill.

Plus, that different chemical composition — five to 10 times as much sulfur as conventional crude and more chloride salts — can weaken pipelines and make them susceptible to breaking during pressure spikes. As well, researchers found that refiners are discovering more quartz sand and other solid material in diluted bitumen that essentially sandblasts pipe interiors.

An analysis in the report points out that Alberta's pipeline system — which is newer and carries more oil sands — has experienced 16 times more safety incidences due to internal corrosion than the U.S. pipeline system.

Between 2000 and 2010, Casey-Lefkowitz said, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen have grown five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

Keystone XL, Lakeland Under Report Microscope

The report analyzes potential elevated safety risks of two pipeline systems — TransCanada's existing Keystone pipeline and the proposed Keystone XL, as well as the Lakehead system operated by Canadian-based Enbridge Energy Partners.

Diluted bitumen is the primary product transported on Keystone, which runs from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma. Both conventional oil and tar sands oil are shipped via the Lakehead system that goes from the Canadian border to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

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