Pipeline Problems

Tailings pond north of Syncrude processing facility and upgrader.

The Sierra Club and partner organizations have released a new report highlighting the risks associated with the construction of a new pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada down to the southern United States. Just last summer a similar pipeline leaked in Michigan, spilling over 800,000 gallons of crude into local waterways. Until the safety and spill response standards put forward in the report are adopted, the United States should put a hold on the consideration of new tar sands pipelines.

What is being proposed

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (also know as the Keystone Gulf Coast Extension) by TransCanada, is a 1,980 mile pipeline that would transport oil sands crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta and deliver it to existing terminals in Nederland, Texas to serve the Port Arthur, Texas oil market. A 50-mile spur would serve the Houston, Texas oil market.

In Canada the pipeline would extend approximately 327 miles from Hardisty, Alberta southeast through Saskatchewan before entering the United States in Morgan, Montana, where it would continue on southeast for 836 miles. In Steele City, Nebraska the pipeline will connect to the 296-mile long Keystone Pipeline before resuming in Cushing, Oklahoma, where it would continue on to its final destination at existing terminals in Nederland, Texas.

When the pipeline bursts

While oil gets moved through pipelines in the United States every day, this pipeline won’t be moving regular crude! Diluted Bitumen (“DilBit”) is a very heavy form of crude oil derived from the tar sands in Canada; it has to be diluted in order to even be moved in pipes. It also appears to be more corrosive than conventional crude, meaning that the pipes used have a much higher failure rate:

Currently, tar sands crude oil pipeline companies are using conventional pipeline technology to transport DilBit. These pipelines, which require higher operating temperatures and pressures to move the thick material through a pipe, appear to pose new and significant risks of pipeline leaks or ruptures due to corrosion, as well as problems with leak detection and safety problems from the unstable mixture. There are many indications that DilBit is significantly more corrosive to pipeline systems than conventional crude. For example, the Alberta pipeline system has had approximately sixteen times as many spills due to internal corrosion as the U.S. system. Yet, the safety and spill response standards used by the United States to regulate pipeline transport of bitumen are designed for conventional oil.

Just last summer there was a major oil spill involving tar sands crude due to a corroded pipline in Michigan which dumped over 800,000 gallons of crude into local waterways, spread into Kalamazoo River, stopping just 80 miles from Lake Michigan. This spill caused a closure of large sections of the Kalamazoo River, forced residents out of their homes, and cost millions of dollars in still ongoing cleanup costs.

TransCanada was lobbying to run its pipeline at higher than approved pressure and with thinner steel than mandated by current law before this spill in Michigan – and while it backed off the pressure request, it still wants to use thinner steel than the Michigan pipeline.

We can do better!

The Sierra Club is hard at work to make an alternate vision a reality – one in which we can reverse years of increasing gas use and prices and transition to alternative fuels, greater bicycle and transit modeshare, and more livable and complete streets for all.

Through initiatives such as our Complete Streets push and Transit to Green Space outings we are helping make streets accessible to all, and to expand transit to be available for everyday use – not just for commuting. We can also help affect how much people have to drive through smart planning for the future – our Land Use and Open Space campaign has tons of resources on how you can help make your community grow smarter.

Finally, we should be working at improving the efficiency of our cars and spending our tax money to build smart public investments instead of cleaning up oil spills. Cities such as Austin, TX have been considering investing in charging stations for electric vehicles in order to jump-start their adoption and reducing dependence on gas and oil. Investing in alternative technologies instead of cleaning up the messes of old ones will move us forward, and mean we won’t have to even consider dangerous projects like this which endanger our communities and water.

Next steps

You can help make a difference, and demand that this pipeline project be put on hold! Join the Sierra Club in contacting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ask her to review the project (her Department reviews the Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline). You can also write or call your legislators and ask that they take a stand against this project. Finally, write a letter to the editor to your local paper! They are a great way to help inform the public about the debate on this issue and to make sure your voice gets heard!


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