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Yet another tar-sands hazard

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Jodi Peterson | Feb 18, 2011 05:07 PM

Ever hear of “DilBit”?  It sounds like a new kind of snack pickle, or maybe a little cat owned by Dilbert, the geeky cartoon character.  Actually, it’s something far less benign – the raw oil extracted from tar sands development in Canada.

Diluted bitumen (also known as "DilBit") … is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil and requires increased heat and pressure to move through pipelines. These unique characteristics bring with them new liabilities to the integrity of the American oil pipeline system that is currently unprepared to handle this product, and new threats to the waterways and aquifers that cross paths with these pipelines."

Canada oil pipelineThat assessment is from a new report, Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks (PDF), from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pipeline Safety Trust, National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club. The report warns of the “increased risk of spills along the controversial Lakehead and Keystone XL pipelines” and notes that “the safety and spill response standards used by the United States to regulate pipeline transport of bitumen are designed for conventional crude oil . . . Until (new) safety and spill response standards are adopted, the United States should put a hold on the consideration of new tar sands pipelines."

The Keystone XL pipeline has already been on hold since July, when the EPA declared its environmental study inadequate.  According to the Montreal Gazette,

The call for the Obama administration to hit the pause button on new oilsands pipelines comes as the U.S. State Department is weighing whether to grant TransCanada a "presidential permit" to begin construction on the Keystone XL, which would ship oilsands crude from Hardisty, Alta., to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The U.S. already imports more than a half-million barrels per day of diluted bitumen, according to the report, which is up to 20 times more acidic than conventional oil. The import amount is expected to triple by 2019. In Alberta, the pipeline system, which has carried high amounts of DilBit since the '80s, has had 16 times the number of spills due to internal corrosion as U.S. pipelines, which began carrying low levels of the substance 10 years ago. When a spill does occur, the report notes that DilBit is more dangerous than other forms of oil:

While all crude oil spills are potentially hazardous, the low flash point and high vapor pressure of the natural gas liquid condensate used to dilute the DilBit increase the risk of the leaked material exploding. DilBit can form an ignitable and explosive mixture in the air at temperatures above 0 degrees Fahrenheit … one of the potential toxic products of a DilBit explosion is hydrogen sulfide, a gas which can cause suffocation in concentrations over 100 parts per million ...

DilBit contains benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and n-hexane, toxins that can affect the human central nervous systems … (and) cause cancer. DilBit also contains vanadium, nickel, arsenic, and other heavy metals in significantly larger quantities than occur in conventional crude. These heavy metals have a variety of toxic effects, are not biodegradable, and can accumulate in the environment to become health hazards to wildlife and people.

And you thought tar sands development was risky enough already just because of the environmental destruction in Canada’s boreal forest and the megaloads of equipment now rolling along the byways of Montana.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Image of Canada oil pipeline in progress courtesy Flickr user Roger Blood.

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