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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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

Ancient water moving up through rock could put the brake on some oilsands projects


Sheila Pratt | Edmonton Journal - January 27th 2015

Press Clipping: Geochemist Ben Cowie, a University of Calgary graduate now with a PhD and moved to Harvard, is causing ripples in the oilpatch with a paper recently published in an American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. Cowie’s research points to a potentially new hazard for oilsands developers — geologic instability in a narrow corridor from Fort McMurray south east to Cold Lake. His work could point to the need for new regulations to make extraction safe for workers and the environment in potentially unstable areas.

Ruptured Yellowstone oil pipeline was built with faulty welding in 1950s


Elizabeth Douglass | InsideClimate News - January 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: The aging Poplar Pipeline leaked as much as 40,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River and fouled the drinking water for 6,000 residents of nearby Glendive, MT. The spill came just days before this week's Senate hearings to bolster support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Opponents have pointed to the Poplar oil release as a fresh example of the hazards of crude oil pipelines that cross waterways. The Keystone XL crosses more than 1,900 rivers, streams, and reservoirs—including the Yellowstone River, said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, a national advocacy group.

Oilsands leak that fouled aquifer is close to site where oil bubbled to surface in 2013

Ed Kaiser | Postmedia News - December 22nd 2014

Press Clipping: A Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. oilsands operation that has contaminated a groundwater aquifer is renewing questions about a technology that has already been linked to another serious leak in northern Alberta. CNRL reported a break in a well at its Wolf Lake high pressure cyclic steam stimulation project in late October, and that the company later discovered elevated levels of hydrocarbons in the aquifer about 60 kilometres northwest of Cold Lake. The area is located about 10 kilometres away from the company’s Primrose East property where a bitumen-water mixture was found oozing to the surface last year.

NAS to study spill cleanup for oil sands crude

Elana Schor | Politico - December 4th 2014

Press Clipping: The National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday began an investigation that could answer one of the biggest questions dogging the Keystone XL pipeline: whether the heavy Canadian oil it would carry is harder to clean up in a spill than conventional crude. At the heart of the NAS investigation is the contention that Canadian oil sands are more likely than other crude oils to sink below the surface of certain marine environments.

There’s been HOW many pipeline spills in Alberta in the last four months??

Gwennedd | Daily Koz - November 20th 2014

Press Clipping: Over the past year West Coast Native News has reported on many crude oil and toxic produced water spills all over Alberta. In fact we have reported over 600,000 litres of toxic crap that has been spilled just last month and yet not one mainstream media outlet has picked up the incidents. So lets take a look back at just the last month (October) and see just what the mainstream is not telling you. The results are shocking.

Groups ask why no charges have been laid a year after Alberta coal mine spill

November 14th 2014

Press Clipping: Conservation groups want to know why no charges have been laid over a massive spill from a coal tailings pond in west-central Alberta. An estimated 670 million litres of waste water spilled into tributaries that feed into the Athabasca River after an earth berm broke at the Obed Mountain mine on Oct. 31, 2013. “The lack of enforcement and charges for a spill of this magnitude calls into question the approval of any mining development in Alberta,” said Brittany Verbeek, a spokeswoman for the wilderness association.

NAFTA’s regulatory body should investigate Canada’s inaction on tar sands tailings

Jennifer Skene | NRDC - October 21st 2014

Blog Post: The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an environmental review body established under NAFTA, soon will decide whether to investigate the Canadian government’s continuing failure to regulate its tar sands industry. By informing Canadian citizens of their government’s inaction on tailings regulations, a CEC investigation would help hold the Canadian government accountable for its failure to protect its fisheries and citizens from toxic tailings.

Ewart: Pipeline company must keep promises

Stephen Ewart | Calgary Herald - October 2nd 2014

Press Clipping: Plains Midstream Canada, the pipeline company responsible for the 2011 Rainbow Pipeline spill, is on the verge of having its entire operations shutdown by the National Energy Board (NEB) just two months after the Alberta Energy Regulator announced the company was no longer under a year-long reprimand that required all regulatory matters to be approved by chief executive Jim Ellis. "Curtailing that intense oversight now seems premature,” writes the Calgary Herald’s Stephen Ewart.