The agency that would be responsible for oversight of the Keystone XL pipeline has not studied the safety measures necessary for a pipeline that carries tar sands crude.
The U.S. State Dept. is in charge of deciding whether to issue a permit for the proposed TransCanada pipeline because it would cross the U.S. border as it moves diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The pipeline would also cross several major watersheds and the Ogallala aquifer, and against the backdrop of significant recent pipeline spills in Michigan and Montana — and 33 spills on the first phase of the Keystone line in just over a year — many are concerned about the potential environmental impact of the project.
The U.S. EPA has twice criticized environmental a reviews by the State Department as insufficient and asked that a spectrum of issues — from the greenhouse gas emissions of tar sands processing, to the impact on communities along the pipeline route and around the refineries — be examined in greater depth.
Alberta tar sands oil is a low grade asphalt-like petroleum product, also known as bitumen, that is strip-mined or melted out of the ground and requires elaborate processing in order to be used as fuel, and its unique properties have raised special safety concerns.
Gooey raw tar sands is mixed with lighter chemicals (natural gas condensate) to make it thin enough to pump through pipelines. A recent report prepared by the National Resources Defense Council, Pipeline Safety Trust and Sierra Club warned that diluted bitumen is more acidic, has more abrasive quartz sand particles, and is moved at higher temperatures, significantly increasing corrosion dangers on pipelines.
“The U.S. pipeline system may already be showing signs of strain,” said NRDC policy analyst Anthony Swift. “The pipelines in Midwestern states that have the longest history of transporting Canadian crude have had three times the spills of the system as a whole.”
As the State Dept. contemplates vastly expanding tar sands imports, regulators acknowledge that there are open questions about the safety requirements for tar sands transport.
In testimony to Congress last month the director of DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, Cynthia Quarterman, said that current regulations were not designed for tar sands, that the agency has done no study on tar sands, and has not assessed existing regulations to see if they address the risks of diluted bitumen.
Last year’s spill of a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County has demonstrated how much more difficult it is to clean up tar sands oil than conventional crude one it hits the water. Because it is so much heavier, much of the tar sands oil has sunk to the bottom of the river and is now breaking down and being released back into the water months after the spill was thought to be contained.
Although PHMSA will be responsible for overseeing the Keystone XL pipeline if is built, Quarterman said that her agency has no role in reviewing TransCanada’s application for a permit to build the line.
“I’m concerned that the industry is changing but the safety regulations are not keeping up with the changes,” said Rep. Henry Waxman ( D-CA). “That could be a disaster down the road.”
This week the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power approved pipeline safety legislation that was celebrated as a positive and rare bipartisan achievement.
“We were pleased and somewhat surprised that the bill continually improved during the subcommittee’s deliberations,” said Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “Areas where is bill is stronger than the Senate bill include leak detection, automated valve use and placement, river crossings, and gas gathering lines.”
The bill also requires PHMSA to study the safety concerns around tar sands within 18 months and report the findings to Congress.
Anthony Swift of the NRDC said that proposed tar sands pipelines should be put on hold until PHMSA has a chance to complete this study and design new standards.
“We also need a study of the risks and cleanup challenges that tar sands spills create so new spill response methods can be devised and first responders can be prepared,” he said. “The pipeline safety bill does not yet address that problem.”
“It is ironic that some of the same Congressmen supporting the pipeline safety bill have advocated that Keystone XL be built before those safety measures are in place.”
Though the Energy Subcommittee has advanced legislation calling for study of tar sands safety issues, the House as a whole recently passed a bill that requires that a decision on the Keystone XL permit be reached by Nov. 1.