The Wicked Brew That Would Be Transported in the Keystone XL Pipeline
Photo Credit: Will Wysong / Flickr
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
The massive exploitation of Alberta tar sands may be the biggest environmental crime in history and a new benchmark for sacrifice of public health to corporate profit.
It's so much more than converting an area of boreal forest the size of England into a cankerous and lifeless open sore bleeding tar. It's more than decimating some of the world’s last wild forests—home to 35% of Canada’s wetlands. And it's more than attacking Earth’s biosphere with a carbon weapon of mass destruction.
How far has corporate depravity driven corporate disregard for life on Earth? The exploitation of the Alberta tar sands goes the distance with the Keystone XL pipeline.
In December 11, 2012 an L.A. Times article by Molly Hennessy-Fiske revealed that Jack Sinz, Texas County Court at Law Judge, lifted his restraining order that delayed a portion of TransCanada’s Keystone XL running through eastern Texas. The restraining order resulted from landowner Michael Bishop filing suit to halt pipeline construction on his property because TransCanada fraudulently promised that Keystone XL would transport “crude oil”.
TransCanada lawyers convinced Judge Sinz that Michael Bishop “...understood what he was doing when he signed off on an easement agreement with the company three weeks ago.”
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard stated: “TransCanada has been open and transparent with Mr. Bishop at all times.” Then Mr. Howard further illuminates the howler of TransCanada being open and transparent: “Since Mr. Bishop signed his agreement with TransCanada, nothing about the pipeline or the product it will carry has changed. While professional activists and others have made the same claims Mr. Bishop did today, oil is oil.”
Problem is, oil is exactly what Keystone pipeline does not pipe.
Raw bitumen diluted with up to 50% natural gas liquids (condensates) at 1,440 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure, and temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s what Keystone XL pipes, a wicked brew called, “DilBit”.
TransCanada’s spokesman, Shawn Howard, said, “...oil is oil”. But that's hardly the case. The massive exploitation of Alberta tar sands (MEATS) and Keystone XL advocates cultivate public misconception of DilBit being “crude oil”. A dangerous ruse spanning pipeline safety regulations to pipeline technology and leak detection...back to public awareness. Pawning off DilBit as crude oil is TransCanada’s public-relations Job Number One—except when it comes to the IRS.
The oil industry pays an eight-cents-per-barrel tax on crude oil produced in or imported to the U.S., proceeds earmarked for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund that covers cleanup costs for oil spills. But in 2011, at the request of a company whose identity is kept secret, an exemption was made that frees DilBit from this tax because, as the secret company made clear: “oil” from Canada’s tar sands is so different (chemistry, behavior, how it’s produced) that it should not be considered crude oil.
Texas, and federal statutory codes define crude oil as "liquid hydrocarbons extracted from the earth at atmospheric temperatures”. Simple enough, DilBit is not crude oil.
Alberta bitumen is strip-mined and steam-melted from sands and silts; it takes two tons of earth, three barrels of water, and lots of natural gas to extract one barrel of raw bitumen , which is almost a solid.
MEATS currently consumes, per day, enough natural gas to heat 3 million Canadian homes, and fouls 400 million gallons of water. Wastewater is pumped into immense tailing ponds rich in arsenic, cyanide, ammonia, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc -- not to mention the biocidal gumbo of hydrocarbons -- sixty-five square miles of tailing ponds, so far.
Downstream from tailing ponds, as in Fort Chipewyan, spikes of lupus, renal failure, hyperthyroidism and 100 of the town’s largely indigenous population of 1,200 have died of cancer. Many rare cancers.
DilBit’s character really shines its deepest darkest black when spilled into the environment.
Actually, a cup of coffee might spill, a glass of milk; eruption is a better term for a DilBit pipeline or pump station, “event”.
Keystone was predicted to spill no more than once every seven years.
After being in operation less than one year, Keystone tallied its eleventh spill—at a pump station, which TransCanada insists “don’t count”.
It was in Ludden, North Dakota, May 7, 2011. A 3/4-inch pipe fitting failed under the pressure, erupting DilBit sixty feet high—21,000 gallons in minutes.
July 26, 2010 had already shown us what a DilBit pipeline at 1440 psi and 160 degrees F can do. Line 6B of the Enbridge Energy Partners Lakehead system ruptured, erupting a million gallons of DilBit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River; the“Marshall spill”.
Since pipeline operators are not required to say what they are piping, emergency responders didn’t discover until ten days later that what turned the Kalamazoo River black was DilBit. Original expectations were that cleanup would take a few months. But after two years the job was not over and apparently never will be. The EPA has declared thirty miles of the Kalamazoo River “ essentially permanently polluted”.
Typically, 90% of crude oil spilled into water can be captured with booms and skimmers.
DilBit is from 50% to 70% bitumen, diluted with natural gas condensates collectively called diluents (exact composition of diluents is a “trade secret”). DilBit in the Kalamazoo River was 70% bitumen. After diluents separated out, bitumen sank and coated the riverbed.
Coincidentally, nine days before DilBit tarred the Kalamazoo River, the EPA warned that the “proprietary nature” of DilBit diluents could complicate cleanup.
Over the last ten years, average cleanup cost of spilled crude oil has been about $2,000 per barrel; DilBit in the Kalamazoo has cost $29,000 per barrel, making it by far the most expensive spill in U.S. history—over $800 million so far. Much of the bitumen cannot be cleaned up without destroying the riverbed.
DilBit pipelines operate at elevated temperature and high pressure to reduce viscosity and increase piping efficiency—increasing the risk of corrosion for a product that, compared to crude oil, contains huge amounts of abrasive quartz particles. DilBit’s extreme acidity and sulfur content also weaken steel.
Between 2002 and 2010, the Alberta hazardous-liquid pipeline system had twenty-five-times as many leaks and ruptures per mile than the U. S. system, mostly from internal corrosion.
TransCanada responded to the corrosion problem by seeking a safety waiver to use thinner-than-normal steel for Keystone XL.
What little research done regarding DilBit has been conducted by industry, so it’s proprietary. That’s right, the old “trade secrets” suppression of information helping to keep government regulating DilBit as crude oil.
Pipeline construction saw a major boom from 2007 to 2009. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) inspection of seven pipelines built during the boom revealed that five showed expansion anomalies indicating significant amounts of defective steel. Several mills had provided defective steel, but 88% of the pipe with expansion anomalies was traced to a manufacturer based in India: Welspun Power and Steel.
Welspun provided 47% of the steel for Keystone 1.
TransCanada confirmed on February 2, 2012, that they will not be using any steel from India to build Keystone XL.
An email to Energy and Commerce Committee staff from TransCanada’s government relations staff said: “We have not sourced any steel from India.” But days later (February 17, 2012), TransCanada confirmed in a press release that 10% of the steel in Keystone XL will come from Welspun, India.
Other examples of TransCanada’s openness and transparency include:
- December 31, 2009: TransCanada confesses that Keystone XL would cause an increase in gas prices.
- June, 2010: TransCanada cites a recent study that claims Keystone XL would reduce gas prices. From the TransCanada website: “...supplies from reliable sources leads to lower costs, thereby putting downward pressure on prices.”
- September 26, 2011: Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s President of Energy and Oil Pipelines declares that the route for Keystone XL has been exhaustively analyzed, and it would be next to impossible to change it now.
- October 11, 2011: In a meeting with Nebraska State Senators, Alex Pourbaix insists that moving the route for Keystone XL would jeopardize the project.
- October 18, 2011: “...it is possible for us to move the route to avoid the Sandhills.” (Alex Pourbaix)
- November 14, 2011: TransCanada announces they will change the route of Keystone XL.
- November 29, 2011: Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada, declares that re-routing the pipeline would be easy.
- December 2, 2011: Alex Pourbaix cannot promise that Keystone XL’s “crude oil” will not be for foreign export. That’s a very important point. Keystone XL will supply the global market—a pipeline through, not to, the U.S.
Massive corporate attacks on the environment are often heralded by wildly-inflated promises of jobs, a standard brilliantly reflected by Keystone XL.
TransCanada purports that Keystone XL construction will create 20,000 American jobs.
Numbers from independent analysis seem more realistic, freer of agenda, averaging out to: 50 permanent jobs and 2,500 temporary jobs—but wait a minute. Considering jobs in emergency-response, cleanup, and environmental rehabilitation (where possible) created by DilBit erupting from Keystone XL...20,000 jobs might seem like an underestimation?
Could tar mop-up be a new major growth industry, brought to us by a neighbor we thought was friendly?
Perhaps TransCanada was simply not open and transparent regarding the kind of jobs Keystone XL will create. After all, TransCanada was open and transparent on September 17, 2009, when they described Keystone XL as “...a boon for corporate profits, but a burden to American consumers.”
Tar With Attitude
Corrosion is a huge menace to DilBit pipelines, but corrosion takes time. An immediate and permanent hazard is called, “column separation”.
The “column” is a mass of DilBit up to thirty miles long being squeezed along like toothpaste. Variations in pipeline pressure cause diluents to change from liquid to gas, creating a bubble, or column separation within the pipeline. Collapse of bubbles can result in pressure spikes capable of deforming or even rupturing pipeline.
Column separation can also make it very difficult to detect leaks. A bubble can impede the flow of DilBit to and from nearby pump stations, giving pipeline operators signs similar to a leak. If the impeded flow is interpreted as a column separation, more DilBit is forced through the pipeline—which can be horrific if there is a leak.
Keystone uses leak-detection technology developed for crude oil pipelines. 294,000 gallons of loss per day is needed to activate automatic safety responses. In the Marshal spill, the Enbridge pipeline erupted Dilbit into the Kalamazoo River for over twelve hours before pipeline shutdown.
If a leak is detected and safety valves block the flow of DilBit, a potentially devastating phenomenon called a “fluid hammer” can elevate pressures far above the pipeline’s operating pressure. A column of DilBit at high pressure is like a freight train 30-miles long—impossible to stop quickly. Tons of inertia feed a train wreck inside the pipeline...a fluid hammer.
Yet another unique DilBit hazard: in a pipeline rupture, diluents can explode—natural gas condensates so flammable they can even set raw bitumen on fire. Burning raw bitumen boils up toxic clouds containing a gas lethal in minute concentrations: hydrogen sulfide.
Emergency personnel responding to a DilBit pipeline eruption must be fully trained and equipped to deal with hydrogen sulfide drifting toward populated areas. The gas is heavier than air, creating severe exposure potential because it hugs the ground, pooling in hollows, canyons, valleys...populated areas, generally.
U.S. Best Interests
TransCanada so rarely tells the truth, when it happens it’s an event—especially when something as profound as Keystone XL being “...a boon for corporate profits, but a burden for American consumers” is spilled.
Keystone XL is a pipeline for the blackest goo that ever shined doom in all colors.
$5.2 billion and counting has been spent to extend fossil-fuel dependence -- $5.2 billion that could have funded energies that offer a future.
The whole job-creation scenario wilts in light of the new-energy jobs taken away by pursuing bitumen as an energy source.
How could a product destined for the global market be spoken of in terms of U.S. energy security? Besides, even at maximum exploitation, Dilbit could supply only about 2% of U.S. energy consumption.
Keystone XL’s threat to vital U.S. resources peaks out by crossing nineteen miles of the Ogallala aquifer with zero special precautions.
Latest polls show battle lines being drawn between disinformation, and awareness. Disinformation has healthy financial backing. Awareness faces austerity, if not poverty.
A flash of light: the L.A. Times’ recent online poll has 25% of respondents saying yes to construction of Keystone XL, while 75% say no.
Barack Obama is in the sticky situation of trying to sell a pipeline squeezing DilBit through the U.S. heartland, to feed the international market, as somehow in the nation’s best interests. Extreme public risk for nothing but corporate profits. Or, as TransCanada put it “...a boon for corporate profits, but a burden for American consumers.”
Keystone XL is a tar baby if ever there was one.
Does the President have the cojones to, at least for the sake of public health, stand up and say no to Big Tar?