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Tar sands pipeline a 'disaster:' US environmentalists

by Staff Writers
Chicago (AFP) Feb 16, 2011
A growing flow of corrosive, unrefined oil from Canada's tar sands being pumped though thousands of miles of pipelines is a disaster waiting to happen, environmentalists warned Wednesday.

That's because US pipelines could crack under the pressure of the corrosive tar sand oil which requires increased heat and pressure to be moved down the line, a report by the National Resource Defense Council and three other groups found.

"As Canada delivers a greater and greater percentage of our oil, their corrosive products will take a greater and greater toll on our pipelines," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the council's international program and a report co-author.

"That creates a huge safety risk we are not prepared for yet."

US pipelines were not built to transport this type of oil and little has been done to study its impact on the aging system, Casey-Lefkowitz said.

The report contends that Alberta's pipeline system -- which is newer and carries more tar sands oil -- has experienced 16 times more safety incidents due to internal corrosion than the US system.

Alberta's energy regulator disputed the report as "factually inaccurate" and "misleading."

The raw tar sand oil -- known as diluted bitumen -- "isn't any more corrosive" than refined oil and the spill data used doesn't correspond with published reports, Energy Resource Conservation Board spokesman Davis Sheremata said.

Chemical analysis shows otherwise, said co-author Anthony Swift of the National Resource Defense Council, who also stood by the report's numbers.

"The bitumen element has some of the most complex and in many ways nasty toxins associated with petroleum products," he told reporters in a conference call.

And the threat is increasing, he warned.

The flow of this unrefined tar sand oil grew fivefold to 550,000 barrels in 2010 from 100,000 barrels in 2000.

It is forecast to rise to as much as 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019 with the help of a new pipeline being planned to transport oil from Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf of Mexico coast.

"The expensive, dangerous and unnecessary pipeline proposed to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas is the next disaster in the making," said Jeremy Symons, of the National Wildlife Federation, which was also involved in the report.

The deadly BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a burst pipeline which dumped 840,000 gallons of tar sand oil into a Michigan river last year showed "the devastation that oil spills have and and the limits of what can be done when an spill occurs", Symons said.

"Oil companies have a terrible track record of putting profits before safety and they find loopholes in regulations," he told reporters.

The Sierra Club has been fighting to keep the new pipeline from being built over the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer, which provides 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States.

"One of the other concerns we have is the detection of small leaks," said Ken Winston, of the club's Nebraska chapter.

The pipeline operator has tried to assure residents that it is capable of detecting leaks as small as one to two percent of the daily flow.

But that's still 8,000 to 9,000 barrels a day which could be leaking into the aquifer. And given that much of the underground pipeline would be built in remote areas, "there could be a lot of oil that could leak before it got noticed," Winston said.

The report recommended that new pipelines be halted until "adequate safety regulations" and that better testing and improved spill response plans are needed for existing pipelines.

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