Tar Sands Solutions Network

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Spills and Leaks

The unsavory impacts of the tar sands are not limited to northern Alberta. Rapid tar sands expansion is creating a growing network of pipelines and oil tankers that make rivers, coastlines and communities all over North America vulnerable to the devastating impacts of tar sands oil leaks and spills.

The most recent spills in Marshall, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas show tar sands pipelines leak a kind of oil that is much more toxic and difficult to clean up than conventional crude, and a massive spill from an oil tanker loaded with tar sands crude would devastate fisheries, communities and economies along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

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Overview:
Tar sands expansion is pushing a web of dangerous infrastucture in every direction
Key Issues:
- Tar sands oil is more corrosive and transported at higher pressures
- Spills of tar sands crude are significantly more toxic and harder to clean up
- A single tanker accident would cause billions in damage
Current Status:
Alberta has seen 28,666 crude oil spills since 1975, an average of 2 per day

The problem, for the oil industry, is one of geography: The tar sands are landlocked far from the nearest port or harbor. To get tar sands crude to market, the oil industry is building or repurposing a growing web of pipelines to every imaginable coast, where oil tankers bigger than the Exxon Valdez will ferry their dirty cargo through some of the most dangerous waters on the planet and on to markets in Europe and Asia.

The risks posed by transporting tar sands oil are enormous. We already know that pipelines transporting Alberta’s dirty tar sands crude to refineries in Central Canada, New England, the U.S. Midwest, and the Gulf Coast are more prone to leak than those carrying conventional crude oil. Midwestern pipelines, which have the longest history of transporting tar sands oil, and pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan spilled almost three times as much crude oil per mile of pipeline compared to the U.S. national average.

Why? Because tar sands crude is more acidic, more corrosive, and more viscous than conventional crude, and must be pumped at higher pressures than normal oil. As it travels through the pipeline, higher temperatures amplify the corrosive qualities of this acidic oil, which carries abrasive materials such as quartz and silicates. In other words, tar sands oil flows through pipelines like hot, toxic liquid sandpaper, and eventually overwhelms the pipe to gush into rivers and city streets.

When tar sands pipelines rupture, the damage is more severe than spills of conventional oil. The natural gas condensate used to thin tar sands oil increases the chance of explosions, and the toxins that are present in the oil, such as benzene and n-hexane, can affect the human central nervous system. Tar sands spills can be especially destructive to bodies of water, where protracted and costly cleanup efforts are required. If a diluted bitumen spill occurs by a river, pond, lake, bay, or sea, the condensate evaporates, leaving the heavier bitumen to sink. This means that cleanup efforts not only require booms to skim spilled oil from the water’s surface, but also dredges to recover sunken bitumen, potentially agitating toxic sediments that have already settled on the bottom.

A recent tar sands spill in southern Michigan shows just how devastating a diluted bitumen spill can be. In the summer of 2010, one million gallons of tar sands oil gushed from an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Michigan. The oil contaminated a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, which required unprecedented clean-up efforts that cost upwards of $1 billion. It also led to widespread health problems in neighboring communities. The same scenario is playing out in Mayflower, Arkansas, where Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline ruptured in April 2013, spilling 300,000 gallons of tar sands crude into suburban streets, residential yards, wetlands, waterways, and Lake Conway. Residents are worried about long-term health impacts, and long-term environmental impacts and clean-up costs are still unknown.

These pipelines are all headed to coastal harbors near you, where tar sands crude can be loaded onto oil tankers plying dangerous coastal waters on their way to Asia and Europe. If these pipelines are built, and tanker traffic increases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, there will almost certainly be a major oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez spill that devastated southeastern Alaska. Such a spill would be almost impossible to clean-up, damaging coastal ecosystems, communities and economies in much the same way BP's massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico did.

The likelihood and severity of these risks are simply too great. If the tar sands industry’s plans to double or even triple production over the coming decades, the number of pipeline leaks and oil tanker spills will increase exponentially. It's simply not worth it.

Spills and Leaks Updates & Resources

Alberta Energy Regulator orders oil-sands operation to shut pipelines

Chester Dawson | MorningStar - August 29th 2015

Press Clipping: The chief energy regulator in Canada's oil-rich Alberta province on Friday ordered the local unit of Chinese state-controlled energy giant Cnooc Ltd. to shut down 95 pipelines at a troubled oil-sands plant for suspected failure to comply with mandatory rules. "We are glad the Alberta government is finally getting tough on pipeline safety,” said Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. "This decision should send a message to all pipeline operators that lax safety procedures that put Alberta's environment and communities at risk are not acceptable."

A massive oil pipeline under the Great Lakes is way past its expiration date

August 11th 2015

Visual: The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and divide Michigan’s lower peninsula from its upper peninsula. But the gorgeous blue expanse of this part of the Great Lakes region is threatened by a danger lurking just beneath its surface: two degrading oil pipelines. Motherboard correspondent Spencer Chumbley went to Michigan to investigate the situation, and the research is alarming. If just one of the pipelines ruptured, it would result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of oil.

Oil sands fail: Nexen admits spill could have gone undetected for two weeks

Theresa Braine | Indian Country Today Media Network - August 3rd 2015

Press Clipping: As crews continue scraping up two football fields’ worth of black goo that spilled from a Nexen Energy pipeline into the muskeg of northern Alberta, Canada, First Nations and tribes are upping their opposition to proposed pipeline projects. The company itself has admitted that it not only has no idea what caused the spill or why state-of-the-art detection technology didn’t work, but also that the pipeline could have been leaking for two weeks before being discovered by a worker on July 15.

TransCanada’s self-inflicted, possibly fatal Keystone XL blunder

Feature

Brendan DeMelle | Desmog Blog - August 2nd 2015

Blog Post: What might have been a sleepy mid-summer South Dakota pipeline permitting process turned into a major headache for TransCanada and supporters of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline this week when new evidence emerged about the pipeline builder’s depth of knowledge of the serious corrosion with its existing Keystone pipeline system, and the lack of market demand for Keystone XL.

Oilsands pipeline projects look doomed after Nexen oil spill leaves two football fields of black goo

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Rebecca Penty and Robert Tuttle | Bloomberg News - July 28th 2015

Press Clipping: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get oilsands pipeline projects off the ground, and Alberta’s worst spill since 1980 will probably make it tougher. A rupture in a line operated by Nexen, a unit of China’s Cnooc Ltd., spewed 31,500 barrels of bitumen, waste water and sand into the bog-like muskeg of the province’s north this month, igniting outrage from communities along pipeline routes.

#RememberTheKalamazoo

Feature

July 28th 2015

Press Clipping: On Sunday, July 25, 2010, an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured and spilled more than one million gallons of toxic tar sands into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It was the largest oil spill ever on U.S. soil. Five years and $1.2 billion later, the river is still polluted, and the community is still suffering the impacts of the spill. On the five year anniversary, hundreds of community members and activists from all over the region gathered to commemorate the Kalamazoo River tar sands disaster and organize to stop history from repeating itself in other communities.

Advocates honor anniversary of Kalamazoo tar sands disaster, work to prevent future spills

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Editors | Tar Sands Solutions - July 25th 2015

Blog Post: This weekend, activists converged along the Kalamazoo River to commemorate the catastrophic tar sands spill that occurred here five years ago, when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and spilled over a million gallons of toxic tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in the biggest on-shore spill in U.S. history. This weekend’s events, which included a “Healing Walk” along the river, as well as workshops and speeches from members of the community affected by the spill, were attended by hundreds of people from across the region.

Five-year anniversary of Kalamazoo spill reminds us of the dangers of tar sands crude

Feature

Jennifer Skene | NRDC - July 25th 2015

Blog Post: On July 25, 2010, an estimated 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled from an Enbridge-owned pipeline into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Calhoun County, Michigan. On the fifth anniversary of this tragedy, communities and activists are coming together at a "Remember Kalamazoo" event in Battle Creek, Michigan, to stand in solidarity with those harmed by the spill and to take a stand against the expansion of tar sands into other communities.