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Keystone XL Primer: Secrecy Still Shrouds Diluted Bitumen Risks

Many questions but few answers about the substance that would flow through the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

By Marie C. Baca, InsideClimate News

Nov 2, 2011
A handful of Canadian oil sands

The Canadian crude oil that would flow through the Keystone XL pipeline is either the lynchpin of U.S. energy security or the path to certain environmental destruction, depending on whom you talk to. Advocates say there is no evidence that it is any more harmful than other types of oil; critics say there is insufficient evidence that it is safe. There is little information to support either side.

The oil that would flow through the pipeline is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit, and it has become a lighting rod for controversy in the debate over the pipeline, which would send as much as 830,000 barrels every day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries as far as Texas. The pipeline would cross six states, sometimes passing through environmentally sensitive terrain where spills would be of special concern.

While bitumen has long been refined into oil, regulation of diluted bitumen has been slow to follow. Federal safety officials, for example, don't know precisely which chemicals shippers mix with bitumen to create dilbit. And even industry groups can't say exactly how corrosive dilbit is. Research is spotty and outdated; there have been no independent scientific studies exploring the relationship between dilbit and pipeline corrosion.

Here's a primer on what is—and isn't—known about dilbit.

What Exactly Is Diluted Bitumen, or Dilbit?

Bitumen is a tar-like type of petroleum that is a byproduct of the oil refining process as well as a naturally occurring substance found in the oil sands of Canada, Venezuela, the United States and other countries. These sands are considered unconventional deposits, meaning that the petroleum doesn't come from the oil wells that have traditionally supplied most of the world's crude. Instead tar sands deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques. The oil can also be extracted by underground heating. In recent years the combination of high oil prices and new technology has made harvesting bitumen extremely profitable. Analysts forecast that capital investment in the oil sands market will reach $45 billion over the next decade.

In its natural state, bitumen is extremely viscous and flows very slowly. To move it through pipelines, oil companies dilute it with chemicals called hydrocarbons to create diluted bitumen, or dilbit. The exact composition and quantity of these hydrocarbons—collectively called diluents—is considered proprietary information and is not shared with regulators.

The bitumen itself contains many of the same chemicals found in regular crude oils, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the independent, non-partisan Pipeline Safety Trust. But he said there are a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of the chemicals added to bitumen to make dilbit. "I think everybody has a good sense of the tar sands itself ... but the diluents used to move it through the pipeline is a whole separate issue."

While the Keystone project has focused the public's attention on Canadian bitumen, plans are also under way to mine bitumen in Utah.

Why Are People Worried?

Multiple reports of ruptures in pipelines that carry dilbit have raised concerns about its safety. Most dramatic was the July 2010 Enbridge Energy pipeline leak, which dumped 843,000 gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup operation has so far involved more than 2,000 personnel, 150,000 feet of boom, 175 heavy spill response trucks, 43 boats and 48 oil skimmers. The cost is expected to exceed $700 million.

Some say pipelines carrying dilbit corrode and burst more frequently than other oil pipelines, because dilbit contains a high concentration of sulfur and minerals and because its stickiness increases friction and raises temperatures inside the pipeline. It is unclear if such characteristics are to blame for the Enbridge incident.

Many people also worry about the chemicals added to dilute the bitumen. It's not clear what these chemicals are, because that information is considered a trade secret. Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust said even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't know the exact composition of the hydrocarbons used in diluents.

If built as proposed, the Keystone XL would pass through Nebraska's Ogallala aquifer, the most heavily used aquifer in the United States. TransCanada estimates that the pipeline could see 11 spills over the next half-century, with each spill releasing an average of 50 barrels of oil. Some researchers believe the number of spills could be much higher (by one estimate, 91 over 50 years).

Additionally, the EPA has said that on a "well-to-tank" basis, bitumen produces 82 percent more greenhouse gasses than conventional oil.

What Do We Know About the Chemicals Found in Dilbit, and Why Is It Important?

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