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New Pipeline Safety Regulations Won't Apply to Keystone XL

Proposed federal rules to strengthen pipeline safety won't be in place before construction could begin on the Keystone XL or other new dilbit pipelines.

By Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

Jul 26, 2012
(Page 2 of 4 )
River closed sign near the Kalamazoo River

"We haven't had a big environmental act passed in this country in the last 20 years," Gosman said. "We're just not seeing shifts in the way pipelines are regulated. The opportunity is there ... but Congress just isn't looking forward."

Below is a review of six regulatory problems that became apparent after the Michigan pipeline accident and the action that is—or isn't—being taken in response.

Pipeline contents still a mystery. The federal officials and cleanup crews who rushed to the scene of the Marshall, Mich., accident didn't know for at least two weeks that they were dealing with dilbit, not conventional oil. Current regulations don’t require operators to provide that information, even after a spill.

The Kalamazoo disaster showed that the distinction is important. Conventional oil floats on the water's surface, where it can easily be vacuumed or skimmed away. But bitumen is so thick that it must be thinned with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines. When the pipeline ruptured in Michigan, those light chemicals began to evaporate, compounding the concerns of health officials. The heavy bitumen then sank to the river bottom, making traditional cleanup methods almost useless.

The bill Congress passed didn't ask PHMSA to require pipeline operators to reveal whether their lines are carrying dilbit or conventional oil. But the NTSB has twice recommended that PHMSA direct operators to inform local emergency responders about the contents of their pipelines—last year after it investigated the 2010 San Bruno, Calif., gas line explosion that killed eight people, and earlier this month after it announced its findings for the Michigan spill.

Although Congress didn't mandate disclosure of pipeline contents, PHMSA has the authority to take that step itself.  But PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill said no efforts are underway to do that.  

Little is known about dilbit. Cleanup and health experts struggled to respond to the Michigan spill in part because so little is known about dilbit. InsideClimate News found few peer-reviewed articles on dilbit while researching the Michigan spill. Studies may have been conducted by the oil industry, but they're not available to the public. InsideClimate News relied on information from government publications, petroleum engineering textbooks and interviews with oil analysts, watchdog organizations and university scientists who have worked with the industry.

Although the Pipeline Safety Act directed PHMSA to conduct a study of dilbit, the study will be limited to a survey of the current scientific literature. No new research is planned.

A spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences, which is conducting the study for PHMSA, said it's too early to know whether it will include only peer-reviewed research or whether it will also look at industry and government publications.

The study mandated by Congress has also been limited to a narrow topic: whether dilbit is more likely than conventional oil to corrode pipelines. It will not explore two questions that emerged after the Michigan spill:  How does dilbit differ from conventional oil when it spills into water? And how does that difference affect health and cleanup responses?

"Diluted bitumen behaves differently, particularly in water bodies [after] a spill," said Anthony Swift, an attorney and pipeline specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Spill responders haven't developed methods to contain and remediate those spills, and emergency response plans certainly don't incorporate the unique properties of dilbit in their response ... and nobody's evaluating that right now."

"We need regulatory agencies to do the [studies], or to commission it to be done. And it hasn't. In the end ... I would expect [the committee] to come to the same conclusion we [at NRDC] have, which is that there hasn't been enough basic science to understand the risks of moving diluted bitumen in pipelines."

The 12-member research committee from the National Academy of Sciences met for the first time Monday in downtown Washington. Swift, one of several experts invited to the meeting, was the only invited speaker from an environmental organization. He presented evidence along with representatives from Enbridge, TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Oil Pipelines and researchers from the Alberta government.

The National Academy's study isn't expected to be finished until summer 2013. By then, the next president will almost certainly have decided whether the northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline can be built.

Deadlines for repairing corrosion and other defects still loose: The defect that led to the Michigan spill in 2010 was identified as early as 2005, when Enbridge, the pipeline operator, self-reported the anomaly to federal regulators. However, the company was allowed to delay the repairs without violating any PHMSA regulations.

Congress did not address the subject of repair deadlines in its legislation and it isn't on the agenda for PHMSA's current rulemaking session.

Any rules PHMSA proposes are reviewed by the agency's 15-member Liquid Policy Advisory Committee, made up of five representatives from government, five from industry and five from the public.

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