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

BP’s Lake Michigan Oil Spill, from the refinery Chicagoans love to hate

Henry Henderson | NRDC - March 26th 2014

Blog Post: Ask any Chicagoan and they’ll tell you that Lake Michigan is a big part of what makes this town great. So, perhaps this is what makes BP’s nearby refinery in Whiting, IN so reviled. The week of the Exxon Valdez disaster anniversary and a week after the Council of Canadians released a report highlighting the threat that tar sands oil imposes on the Great Lakes, BP did what it always does: crapped up Lake Michigan.

So much has changed since Exxon Valdez: Except this one critical thing

Feature

Nikki Skuce | ForestEthics Advocacy - March 26th 2014

Blog Post: Since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit Bligh Reef in 1989, we have advanced technology to exploit resources and fuel our addiction to oil, but we have not gotten any better at cleaning up oil spills. Twenty-five years later, there is still oil on beaches, the herring have never returned, and local communities suffer health and economic impacts.

10 lessons we still need to learn from Exxon Valdez

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Art Sterritt and Rick Steiner | Coastal First Nations - March 25th 2014

Blog Post: Today is the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. To help remember the spill, and to provide a dose of reality in the face of millions of dollars of advertising for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, here are 10 truths about oil spills that every British Columbian should know.

Portland-Montreal Pipeline Already Past Retirement Date

Miles Grant | National Wildlife Federation - March 13th 2014

Blog Post: The Exxon-owned Portland Pipe Line Corporation (PPLC) seeks to reverse its aging Portland-to-Montreal pipeline to transport heavy, corrosive, toxic tar sands oil. The problem is it’s already passed its projected retirement date. "This is yet another reason any tar sands project in Northern New England is far too risky," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Center. “As we saw with the tragic tar sands oil disaster in Mayflower, Arkansas, last year, these old pipelines can and will fail."

Congratulations! You stood up to tar sands giant CNRL and you won!

Feature

Mike Hudema | Greenpeace Canada - March 10th 2014

Blog Post: Nine months ago the first of four unstoppable spills was discovered at CNRL’s Primrose site near Cold Lake, Alberta. A few weeks ago, even though the spills are still spilling, CNRL had the audacity to apply to restart their operations and begin steaming again. In less than three days almost 1,500 people signed a petition to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to deny the application, and the AER did just that. Now CNRL has withdrawn the application. Now that’s a victory.

Plains Midstream criticized by Alberta regulator for pipeline breach, spill

Feature

Bob Weber | Canadian Press - March 6th 2014

Press Clipping: The owner of a pipeline that leaked nearly half a million litres of oil into a central Alberta river has been heavily criticized by the province's energy watchdog. The Alberta Energy Regulator has concluded that Plains Midstream didn't inspect its Rangeland pipeline often enough, didn't pay enough attention to government warnings, failed to enact adequate mitigation measures once the leak occurred and communicated poorly with hundreds of people affected by the spill in June 2012.

Study showing tailings ponds leakage demands oilsands slowdown: critics

Bob Weber | Canadian Press - February 25th 2014

Press Clipping: Environmentalists and opposition politicians say new research that indicates oilsands tailings are leaching into groundwater should convince the Alberta government to slow down development. Industry and government officials responding to the Environment Canada study say it isn't conclusive and more research is needed before action is taken, but the scientist behind the findings said he's confident in his work. "With some of the groundwater samples containing chemical profiles similar to tailings ponds, this is the strongest indication to date that process water is reaching the river system," said Richard Frank, lead author of the paper published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Why an accidental leak should send shivers up big oil’s spine

Jeff Rubin | Globe and Mail - February 25th 2014

Press Clipping: One of the largest accidental releases of oil in Alberta’s history isn’t a burst pipeline and it doesn’t involve a train of tanker cars derailing into a river. An estimated 12,000 barrels of bitumen and water has now risen from giant cracks in the forest floor at an underground oil sands project run by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Oil leaks are a regrettable fact of life in the business, but this one might send shivers up the spine of even a veteran oilman.