Twin oil spills raise questions on US-Canada tar sands pipeline project
Two oil line ruptures in as many weeks may jeopardize a planned Alberta-to-Texas tar-sands pipeline that Calgary-based TransCanada is currently seeking approval for. The 1,702-mile, $12 billion Keystone XL line could get the go-ahead from the US State Department by year's end. But on May 7, a valve broke at a pumping station near near Cogswell, North Dakota, along the first leg of the Keystone pipeline system. The breach released some 500 barrels of Canadian heavy crude inside the facility and set off a geyser of oil that reached above the treetops in a nearby field. Just ten months ago the pipeline began transporting bitumen from Alberta's oil sands mines to refineries in Patoka, Illinois. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups said that because tar-sands pipelines carry a highly corrosive and acidic mix of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate, they raise the risk of spills. The study found that internal corrosion has caused more than 16 times as many spills in the Alberta pipeline system than the US system because of bitumen.
On April 29, the province of Alberta suffered its worst spill in 36 years when a pipeline broke in a remote area of boreal forest east of the Peace River, some 7.5 miles from the community of Little Buffalo in the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree First Nation. It released 28,000 barrels along the pipeline's 30-meter right-of-way and in pools of stagnant water. The Rainbow pipeline system—owned by Calgary-based Plains Midstream Canada, a subsidiary of Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline (PAA)—was built in 1965 and runs 480 miles from a pipeline in northwestern Alberta to the provincial capital of Edmonton, where oil is processed for US and Canadian markets. PAA is one of the largest oil and gas transportation firms in North America.
The company said the cause was human error—claiming that soil surrounding a section of the pipe wasn't properly compacted after it was excavated during a 2010 maintenance check, causing stress on the line. PAA now says 36% of the oil has been recovered. But the company reported that clean-up work was halted May 11 after a distress call from a worker in the field. Additionally, both the provincial government and PAA were accused of keeping the spill hushed up for days following the rupture. In 2006, there was a breach on the same line due to corrosion, spilling about 180 barrels.
Friends of the Earth called the PAA rupture "a major tar sands oil pipeline spill" that "adds to doubts" about Keystone XL. Critics pointed out that for now, the Rainbow line only transports light sweet crude, not bitumen. However, PAA, which purchased the pipeline in 2008 from Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, makes clear on its website that it has oil sands ambitions. "This [Rainbow] system...is favorably positioned relative to long-lived reserves in certain areas of the Canadian oil-sand deposits," it says.
NRDC meanwhile notes a recent string of grim warnings of the dangers posed by the Kestone XL plan: "Over the last year we’ve had many recent indications of the risks of tar sands diluted bitumen pipelines—an 840,000 gallon spill in Michigan, a 250,000 gallon spill outside Chicago, a 1.3 million gallon spill in Alberta, as well as our recent report examining the safety of tar sands pipelines." It calls the North Dakota incident the "eleventh and most significant spill" on the existing portion of the Keystone line since it began operations less than a year ago. (Reuters, Michigan Messenger, May 12; UPI, Globe & Mail, CTV Calgary, Mother Jones, May 11; TexasVox, May 10)
Tar-sands pipelines under construction in the Canadian west have been repeatedly protested by First Nations whose lands are being impacted. Tar-sands processing will receive big tax breaks in the US under legislation passed as part of the corporate "bail-out" after the 2008 financial crash.