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.
- 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.