A petition filed with federal agencies last week by a coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation is demanding a moratorium on pending tar sands pipelines—including the Keystone XL—until regulators establish new rules to ensure their safety.
As if to illustrate the dangers outlined in the petition, Exxon's Pegasus pipeline that carries Canadian diluted bitumen, or dilbit, on Friday spilled in central Arkansas, releasing an estimated 84,000 gallons of the crude within about 45 minutes before the release was stopped, according to local sources.
Filed on behalf of 29 environmental and community groups and 36 individuals, the petition includes a list of nine policy recommendations for the safe transport of dilbit, a type of crude oil produced from Canada's oil sands region.
"Simply put, diluted bitumen and conventional crude oil are not the same substance," the petitioners wrote. "There is increasing evidence that the transport of diluted bitumen is putting America's public safety at risk. Current regulations fail to protect the public against those risks. Instead, regulations ... treat diluted bitumen and conventional crude the same."
The rules proposed by the petitioners cover pipeline safety, leak prevention and oil spill response, issues InsideClimate News has been covering closely in the wake of the million-gallon dilbit spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River that occurred in July 2010.
Dilbit is a mixture of heavy bitumen and diluents—light hydrocarbons used to thin the bitumen so it can flow through pipelines. While most conventional crude oils will float on water, the bitumen began sinking into the river as the diluents evaporated, leaving a sludge of submerged oil that defied traditional cleanup methods.
Earlier this month, the EPA ordered Enbridge, Inc., the Canadian company that owns the pipeline, to dredge sunken oil from the riverbed. The cleanup has cost more than $820 million to date and could top $1 billion once the order is carried out.
The section of the pipeline involved in Friday's spill in Arkansas was originally built in the 1940s, according to an Exxon spokesperson. The full length of the pipline was used to transport crude oil from Nederland, Texas north to Patoka, Illinois. After lying mostly idle for four years, the pipeline's flow was reversed in 2006 to carry Canadian dilbit to Gulf Coast refineries. Exxon said the reversal was an industry first, and that it required 240,000 man-hours of work to accomplish.
In 2009, Exxon increased the line's capacity by 50 percent to more than 90,000 barrels a day by reactivating and enhancing pumping stations to push more dilbit through the 20-inch line. The company said it also installed new leak detection technology. The pipeline was shut down for maintenance work between Dec. 6 and 17 last year.
The repurposing and reversal of pipelines is an option industry is exercising with greater frequency to transport dilbit out of landlocked Alberta to refineries and export hubs as quickly as possible to keep up with booming production.
Nature of Dilbit Debated
"Diluted bitumen from Western Canada is no different than conventional crude," a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said. "A different set of rules for diluted bitumen are not necessary and do nothing to improve pipeline safety."
According to federal legislation from 1980, dilbit is not considered to be crude oil and is exempt from an 8-cent-per-barrel tax that helps to support the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund tapped during spill emergencies.