April 4, 2013 – It was years ago that I heard James Hansen quoted as saying that if the KXL pipeline were built and utilized, it was “game over” for our planet. Like so many, I nodded vaguely and murmured the appropriate comments – probably “oh my gosh, this is just awful.” My acceptance of his assertion was based on my belief in his expertise, and on the pictures of environmental destruction coming out of Alberta. Let me hasten to add, I still think he’s right. But I didn’t understand why he was right, not really. Not until yesterday, thanks to the rupture of the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas.
Here it is, friends. The Crux of the Matter, the Meat of the Issue:
It is impossible to move tar sands oil safely.
Spend a moment taking that all in. There’s a lot there, though only nine words are required to speak the whole truth. Once you’ve accepted the full import of those words, we’ll talk about the why. Need I add that the entire Keystone project is based on wishful thinking? Coming up with The World’s Worst Idea leads to a lot of that – wishful thinking, that is.
Okay, here’s the why of it.
Diluted bitumen contains unacceptable levels of sulfur and chloride salts,
making it highly corrosive. It also contains unacceptable levels of quartz,
rutile, and pyrite particles, making it highly abrasive.
First, the part about diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a sticky, viscous sand-mixed-with-tar that is almost solid. The sulfur and chloride in dilbit will corrode metal pipeline. In order to get it to move through pipes, it is diluted with liquid natural gas. Thus the abbreviation you have undoubtedly come across more than once: dilbit, or diluted bitumen. A joint report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Pipeline Safety Trust, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club describes dilbit as “a highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate.” (Remember that word volatile, because when dilbit is pumped through pipelines at high pressure, enough friction is generated to heat it to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.)
So this is where we stand. According to the aforementioned report, dilbit is thicker, more acidic, and more sulfuric than conventional crude oil. These various characteristics of dilbit, specifically its abrasiveness – due to particulate matter – and its acidity, cause pipelines to weaken and/or become brittle. (By the way, the particles described in the bolded statement above are what you and I commonly refer to as sand). As if all this weren’t bad enough, there’s more: because of an unfortunate quirk of dilbit’s chemical composition, underground leaks can be much more difficult for monitors to detect. The long and the short of it? Leaks are absolutely inevitable, and many times we won’t know they’re happening – until and unless the pipeline leaks above ground.
This is the substance leaking from the Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas. Pegasus runs from Patoka, Illinois to refineries in Nederland, Texas. Actually, the pipeline was first built in 1940 to carry crude from the Gulf coast to the Midwest, but Exxon reversed its flow in 2006 in order to relieve a bottleneck in Cushing, Oklahoma. Then, in 2009, Exxon petitioned regulators to allow expansion of pipeline capacity from 65,000 barrels a day to 95,000 barrels per day. In other words, a 70-year-old pipeline that was never designed with dilbit in mind is being forced to carry far more crude oil that happens to be dilbit than it has ever carried before. The outcome?
We don’t know exactly how much dilbit has spilled, because Exxon is keeping media away from the spill site. We do know that 22 homes, at one point, were evacuated from Mayflower, Arkansas due to the dangerous vapors given off by dilbit. Clean-up, because of the viscous, acidic nature of dilbit, will be prolonged. This was learned during the dilbit spill of 2010 in Marshall, Michigan, where EPA officials have forecast that a full cleanup could take years. Eight hundred thousand gallons of dilbit is fully submerged over an area of 200 acres in the Kalamazoo River. Sadly, Pegasus and Marshall are by no means the only spills of dilbit that have taken place. The Keystone 1 pipeline spilled twelve times in under a year. A North Dakota pumping station leaked 500 barrels (approx.. 50 gallens/barrel). The corroded Rainbow pipeline in Alberta leaked 343,000 gallons. The Yellowstone River has apparently been “spoiled” by a dilbit spill, according to DeSmogBlog.
You knew you were opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. Now you know why.
With thanks to DeSmogBlog.