A report released in February highlights the elevated risk of pipeline spills throughout the nation as a result of increasing imports of dangerous tar sands oil.
“Transporting tar sands crude is much more dangerous than transporting traditional oil,” said Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Campaign Director Kate Colarulli. “Tar sands crude is more corrosive and poses an increased risk of spills.”
The report by the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pipeline Safety Trust, and National Wildlife Federation, Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks, shines a light on the dangers of transporting diluted bitumen, or tar sands crude. Because it is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil, and requires increased heat and pressure to move through pipelines, tar sands crude poses new risks to communities along pipeline routes.
Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks looks at the elevated threats in the Lakehead system in the Upper Great Lakes and the controversial Keystone XL line, identifying especially vulnerable locations in the pipelines’ paths; including sensitive and economically important watersheds and the Great Lakes, which account for one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply. Last summer’s Lakehead system failures dumped nearly a million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, elevating concern over possible impacts from the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline—particularly in Nebraska where it would pass through the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer, which is a drinking water source for millions and essential to American agriculture.
“Canada’s oil industry is pushing hard to pipe its dirty crude through America’s heartland. We need to put community safety and clean water first. This decision shouldn’t be about helping foreign oil companies make more money. New tar sands pipelines shouldn’t be approved until we can ensure that there is no risk of spills and contamination,” Colarulli said.
Tar sands diluted bitumen is new and untested in the United States. In 2000, tar sands producers exported 100,000 barrels of it to the United States and they plan to increase deliveries to as much as 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.
Today’s report shows how this new product brings a significantly different chemical composition from other forms of petroleum, creating new challenges with cleanup when spills occur. Due to its thicker nature, increased heat and pressure are necessary to move tar sands crude through a pipeline. It also contains more harmful chemicals than conventional crude, including 5-10 times as much sulfur, and more chloride salts. Both substances can weaken pipelines and make them more likely to break during a pressure spike.
“Despite the new risks posed by tar sands crude, American regulators have not yet created specific safeguards to protect communities along pipeline routes from spills and contamination,” Colarulli said. “Tar sands crude is a dangerous substance. Before we agree to transport it across the Midwest, we need to make sure it’s not going to destroy our water and farmland.”
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