Once and Future Claims

In the wake of the NTSB Marshall, Mich. investigation, the National Wildlife Federation seized the opportunity to make a sweeping – and inaccurate – case against the transportation of oil sands crudes

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal organization charged with determining the probable causes of transportation accidents, investigated the 2010 Marshall, Michigan pipeline incident and made pipeline safety improvement recommendations to various stakeholders. Despite growing claims from opposition groups that the corrosive qualities of crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands were partially to blame for the incident, the 164-page report references oil sands only once. And what was that one reference, you ask? To simply state the fact that Line 6B transports diluted bitumen from the Canadian oil sands.

Not too long after NTSB’s draft findings were released, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) came out with an 8-page report (or 4 pages, if you take out the pictures) that misuses the Board’s investigation as a springboard to reignite a larger debate over the transportation of oil sands crudes. Over the course of only 8-pages (or 6 if you take out the back cover and endnotes), NWF mentions “tar sands” 18 times.

If that word count isn’t enough of an indication of the disconnect between the NTSB’s findings and NWF’s related commentary, consider this: one of NTSB’s main findings was that the Marshall incident was caused by external – not internal corrosion. In other words, the pipeline didn’t fail because of what flowed through it.

OSFC took a closer look at NWF’s claims and we attempt to clarify why any discussion on Alberta’s oil sands is irrelevant to the issues raised through the NTSB’s investigation.

p.1: “But tar sands oil is a very different beast than conventional crude oil, and it is difficult to transport the former safely through pipelines that were designed for the latter.”

FACT: Despite the unconventional method of extraction, oil sands crudes aren’t so different from more conventional sources of oil. Prior to reaching any pipeline, bitumen is extracted from the sands and processed to a standard similar to other heavy, conventional crude oils. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) clearly confirms this fact. Pointing to data that compares the three main properties of crude oil – gravity, sulfur content and total acid – CRS finds that “all oil sands crudes would be considered heavy crudes. Heavy crudes are found throughout the world, including the United States.”

The second point made here is even more crucial. Any type of crude oil – hailing from the oil sands of Alberta or the oil fields of West Texas – must meet standards specific to the pipelines through which it will flow. Likewise, pipelines must be constructed and operated to specifications unique to the product it will transport and under the close watch of a host of state and federal regulators. In a recent interview on E&E TV, Andy Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL) puts the argument in context:

“Pipelines are very expensive to build and the operators expect them to have long lives. Refineries are expensive to build and retrofit and are expected to have long lives. It’s just not logical that a pipeline operator or a refinery would put into it an asset like crude oil that is too corrosive for it to handle.” (E&E TV, 7/19/12)

p.1: “That’s because tar sands oil is more corrosive (due to its chemical mixture) and abrasive (due to high grit minerals), weakening the pipes to the point that they are more susceptible to leaks and ruptures.”

FACT(s): We’ll hit each of the high notes on this assertion:

More susceptible? According to accident data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were no instances of oil leaks caused by internal corrosion of pipelines carrying Canadian crude oil from 2002-2011. That includes the 2010 incident along Line 6B in Marshall, Mich., which, as we mentioned before, NTSB concluded was not caused by internal corrosion.

More abrasive? As we described in an earlier post, the folks at Alberta Innovates did their homework on this subject. In comparing properties between different crude oils, researchers discovered that sediment levels of diluted bitumen from the oil sands were “comparable or lower than the conventional crudes.”

More corrosive? As CRS reported back to Congress in its latest write-up, claims of corrosivity are subject to debate. But in the same breath they cite Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board which in 2011 found that “there is no reason to expect [bitumen] to behave in any substantially different way than other oil …” Alberta Innovates came to the same conclusion, finding that under pipeline transportation temperatures for oil sands crude, or any other crude for that matter, acid and sulfur compounds found in oil sands crudes “are too stable to be corrosive and some may even decrease corrosion.” More on the dilbit vs. conventional debate will be revealed after a panel from the National Academy of Sciences completes its analysis in 2013; experts recently presented to the panel to get things started and debunk the notion that oil sands crudes are any more corrosive than other heavy crude oils.

p. 2: “We know tar sands pipelines are going to spill.”

FACT: Analyses of both U.S. and Canadian pipelines conclude that transporting crude oil from the Canadian oil sands does not result in more pipeline releases. Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) could not identify “any significant difference in failure frequency between pipelines and conventional crude versus pipelines carrying bitumen, crude oil or synthetic crude oil.” As part of the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL, the U.S. Department of State stated that “[T]here is no evidence that the transportation of oil sands derived crude oil in Alberta has resulted in a higher corrosion related failure rate” than occurs in the transportation of conventional crude oils in the U.S. pipeline system. In the words of the Department of Transportation (DOT), “[p]ipelines, in short, are practical and safe.

p. 3: “Hundreds of miles across the border in the company’s Edmonton, Alberta control center, alarms sounded, but operators ignored them.”

FACT: The NTSB found that indications of a leak were misinterpreted, but certainly not ignored. According to the summary conclusions, control room staff misinterpreted “the rupture as a column separation, which led them to attempt two subsequent startups of the line.” Enbridge has publically commented on mistakes that were made and changes that have been put into place to prevent future incidents.

p. 4: “Enbridge intends to send this dirty fuel through Canada and the U.S. to ports on the east coast. …The plan involves the Line 6B expansion, plus the flow reversal of an existing pipeline (Line 9) ― which, coupled with semi-secret plans to reverse the flow of the “Portland/ Montreal Pipeline,” adds up to an unbroken pathway from Alberta’s tar sands region to Portland, Maine.”

FACT: NWF follows in the misled footsteps of NRDC in their contention that Enbridge is somehow plotting to send North American crude oil, including crude from Canada’s oil sands, through eastern Canada to Maine on the U.S. east coast – a claim that Enbridge on numerous occasions has denied. According to this May 2012 earnings call, the company once considered the idea of connecting to Maine to move oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast, but has since abandoned it in favor of a partnership interest in the Seaway Pipeline and reversing that line for transport of crude oil into Houston-area refineries.


p.6: “Implement stronger pipeline safety standards that account for the increased dangers of transporting Canadian tar sands oil.”

FACT: The National Academy of Sciences has been commissioned by the Department of Transportation to assess the properties of dilbit – or Canadian oil sands’ bitumen diluted at the extraction site for transport – and add yet another voice to the debate over whether oil sands crudes could potentially pose a unique harm to pipelines. In his interview with E&E TV, AOPL’s Andy Black commented on the project NAS is about to undertake, saying:

“[I]f that study is done fairly, it’s going to show what the market knows, what refiners and shippers know, that [bitumen is] not any more corrosive than other crude oils.

And there is little evidence to suggest that pipeline safety is getting worse. According to AOPL data, oil pipeline releases that occur over time (such as corrosion or cracking) were down 36 percent between 2002 and 2009.

p. 6: “Make sure oil companies are held liable when accidents happen. …The industry, not taxpayers, should bear the cost of its mistakes.”

FACT: According to a recent filing by Enbridge to the Securities and Exchange Commission, cleanup costs in Marshall is estimated at $725 million, which will be paid in full by the company, including reimbursement to EPA for its response efforts. Following the release of the NTSB report draft findings, Enbridge asserted that it has taken full responsibility for the spill from the beginning and is bearing the cost.



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