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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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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

Marching to keep tar sands oil out of our communities


Anthony Swift | NRDC - June 3rd 2015

Press Clipping: On June 6th, 2015, NRDC will join dozens of our allies for the Tar Sands Resistance March in the twin cities of Minnesota. Citizens from across the Midwest will stand together to protect water, climate and our communities from the threat of dirty tar sands. The march in St. Paul is part of a growing movement across America to resist an incoming tar sands invasion in the United States. The potential impacts could prove catastrophic for communities across the country.

Benzene gas from Kinder Morgan bitumen spill could endanger 1 million Vancouverites

Heather Libby | Desmog Canada - May 31st 2015

Press Clipping: As part of its final package of evidence in the NEB’s review of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion, the City of Vancouver solicited expert testimony on how air quality would be impacted by a spill in Burrard Inlet. The 53-page report prepared by Richmond-based Levelton Consultants has the same underlying thread of doom featured in much of Vancouver’s other evidence. The key difference? This time there’s a possible human body count.

Tar sands oil poses three-pronged threat to Lake Champlain region

Miles Grant | National Wildlife Federation - May 28th 2015

Blog Post: Lake Champlain and the surrounding region are at risk from oil spills and explosions and, given inadequate safety protections, an immediate moratorium on tar sands transportation is needed to protect communities and wildlife, according to a new report. The report documents the tar sands oil industry’s three-pronged attack to infiltrate the region with dirty, dangerous tar sands oil. The report highlights the impacts on one of the region’s most important natural resources, Lake Champlain, an international treasure often referred as the sixth Great Lake, and other critical habitats in the region.

Scientists study impact of diluted bitumen spilled into ocean

May 27th 2015

Press Clipping: Federal scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography are studying the behaviour of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands when it spills into the ocean. They're finding it poses real challenges for any cleanup. "It is to a certain degree tougher to work with than conventional oil," says Thomas King of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "When it begins to sink it becomes more troublesome. We have to figure out ways to track, monitor and remediate sinking oil."

Major Vancouver oil spill could cost city $1.2 billion

Laura Kane | Canadian Press - May 26th 2015

Press Clipping: Vancouver's economy could suffer a $1.2-billion blow in the case of a major oil spill caused by Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, concludes a new report released by the city. The report, conducted by the University of B.C.'s Fisheries Economics Research Unit, examined the potential economic costs of a 16-million litre spill in Burrard Inlet, the body of water bordering to the city that is busy with industrial use, cruise ships and float planes. "The risk is massive," said city councillor Andrea Reimer.

Just how risky is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion?

Heather Libby | Desmog Canada - May 21st 2015

Press Clipping: With the May 27 deadline for evidence submission to the National Energy Board’s review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project fast approaching, the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver are stepping up. Last Wednesday, the City of Burnaby quietly released a report [PDF] outlining the risks and possible implications of a fire at the Burnaby tanker terminal. The results, to quote Mayor Derek Corrigan, are “comprehensive and jarring.” “It is remarkable that Kinder Morgan is even asking the citizens of Burnaby to assume such risks, but even moreso that the National Energy Board is willing to consider expanding this storage site in this location."

Up to 90 per cent of Burrard Inlet oil spill would reach shoreline in hours


Tiffany Crawford and Kelly Sinoski | Vancouver Sun - May 18th 2015

Press Clipping: An independent oil spill trajectory model created for the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby, and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, in response to Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion plans, has found that up to 90 per cent of the oil from a major oil tanker spill in the Burrard Inlet would reach the shoreline within 48 hours. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson called the report "alarming," and said many residents believe the Kinder Morgan proposal poses "far too great a risk to our local economy and environment."

TransCanada Keystone 1 pipeline suffered major corrosion after only two years in operation


Julie Dermansky | DeSmog Blog - April 30th 2015

Press Clipping: Documents obtained by DeSmogBlog reveal an alarming rate of corrosion to parts of TransCanada's Keystone 1 pipeline. A mandatory inspection test revealed a section of the pipeline's wall had corroded 95%, leaving it paper-thin in one area (one-third the thickness of a dime) and dangerously thin in three other places. “It is highly unusual for a pipeline not yet two years old to experience such deep corrosion issues,” Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada pipeline engineer-turned-whistleblower, told DeSmogBlog. “Something very severe happened that the public needs to know about.”