Larger pipelines carrying heavy Canadian oil sands fuel are at no greater risk of a spill than those running conventional crude, the National Academy of Sciences concluded today in a study hotly anticipated by both camps in the long-running debate over Keystone XL.
The NAS study deals a blow to one central safety argument made by opponents of the $5.3 billion Keystone XL link -- that the heavier chemical components of so-called diluted bitumen make it more dangerous to ship -- but made no attempt to address critics' second and more prominent concern, that a leak of oil sands crude would pose unique challenges during cleanup as well as unique risks to marine environments. That narrower mission gave environmentalists an opening to shrug off NAS's conclusion as inconsequential in their anti-KXL push.
"The relevant question is whether we are prepared for" the prospect of a spill from a pipeline such as KXL, said the Sierra Club's associate campaign director, Kate Colarulli. "The NAS findings do not shed light on this. ... It's pretty obvious from the industry's spill record over the past couple of years that for health, environmental and economic reasons, we cannot afford to ignore these fundamental questions."
The company that already has invested more than $1 billion in KXL's southern leg, however, heralded the NAS study as a debunking of green groups' claims that diluted bitumen is chemically distinct from, and riskier to transport than, conventional heavy oil.
"At some point, the professional opposition that has used Keystone XL and the oil sands industry as a symbol for their fundraising and advocacy campaigns will need to accept the fact that this product has been moving through the U.S. for decades, that oil is oil and that pipelines remain the safest way to move oil to refineries where it is needed," TransCanada Corp. spokesman Shawn Howard said via email.
"As a responsible, publicly traded company, TransCanada has an obligation to provide accurate and factual information about our projects to the public and our shareholders -- and we hope that the professional opposition to this project will start to do the same."
The 114-page study from NAS's National Research Council, more than a year in the making, involved no new research but included an array of testimony from industry and government scientists as well as conservationists who have made KXL a symbol for the nation's recent influx of heavy Canadian oil sands crude from its northern neighbor. Echoing a frequent assertion from the oil and gas industry, NAS found that the chemical characteristics of diluted bitumen are similar to heavy oils extracted conventionally in Venezuela, Mexico and Canada.
"Diluted bitumen does not have unique or extreme properties that make it more likely than other oils to cause internal damage to transmission pipelines from corrosion or erosion," NAS concluded.
KXL would carry upward of 730,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries if approved by President Obama, who has said he plans to make a final decision on its border-crossing permit by the end of the year. Environmental groups aligned against the 1,179-mile project view oil sands crude as a climate threat but also allege that the fuel carries a higher risk of spills, pointing to the 2010 leak of 800,000-plus gallons of Canadian fuel in Michigan as a sign of things to come if the pipeline is built.
Yet NAS, in addressing its core question of whether diluted bitumen made the Michigan spill more likely, pointed out that a lengthy investigation of that leak by the National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence that the type of fuel running through Enbridge Inc.'s ruptured line played any role in the incident.
A major segment of the NAS study examined a 20-year-old analysis of oil pipeline spills by the California State Fire Marshal, a respected arbiter of fuel transportation. The Natural Resources Defense Council has led other green groups in using the Golden State analysis to argue that higher-temperature pipelines -- such as KXL and others that carry oil sands crude -- are more likely to fail due to external corrosion.
NAS concurred that the California analysis showed a higher risk of failure in pipelines that ran hotter, but pointed to the age and size of the pipes studied in finding it inapplicable to KXL and other larger, newer oil transmission projects.
"While the California experience illustrates the problems that can arise when pipelines are not properly protected against external corrosion, it is not indicative of the protections afforded crude oil transmission pipelines today," NAS wrote.
Anthony Swift, an attorney at NRDC's international program, charged that the California data do show a link between higher operating temperatures and the risk of a pipeline failure that warrants further study and bears out charges that KXL poses heightened risks.
"[W]e agree that smaller pipelines tend to have larger spill rates than larger pipelines, all things being equal (when spills on larger pipelines happen, they also tend to be larger -- as the [California] study and many others also show)," Swift said via email. "However, that doesn't change the fact that in any pipeline, all things being equal, higher temperatures do increase the risk of external corrosion."
Beyond the California study, NAS pointed to gaps in data collection by pipeline regulators that prevented it from making a comprehensive analysis of the specific causes behind ruptures and other failures that cause oil spills. Federal regulators do not track the specific types of oil that flow through U.S. pipelines in real time, as they told NAS last year (Greenwire, July 23, 2012).
"Because of the potentially large number of factors associated with a given release, it is often difficult to isolate the role of any single causative factor, such as the effect of the specific crude oil being transported, on time-dependent mechanisms such as corrosion and cracking," NAS wrote.
Watchdog urges broader review
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the NAS study is whether the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration plans to consider its conclusions a definitive fulfillment of Congress' 2011 legislative mandate to examine whether current federal regulations are sufficient to ensure the safety of diluted bitumen pipelines.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, called on the agency to conduct a broader review of safety regulations that allow integrity management plans for pipelines to remain housed within the private sector, not at PHMSA, and have led landowners to lament the insufficiency of emergency response plans.
"PHMSA must still undertake a comprehensive review of existing pipeline regulations to determine if they are sufficient to protect people and property from the risks of transporting [diluted bitumen] in pipelines that can and do fail," Weimer said in a statement.
An agency source said PHMSA is currently examining whether NAS's findings comply with the congressional mandate or whether a further look at its safety rules is required.
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