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Pipelines for tar sands oil

October 9, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

At this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair (Aug. 17-18 at Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, Ill.), Andrew Nikiforuk described the adverse environmental and political impacts on North America of the aggressive development of northeastern Alberta tar sands.

The tar sands oil deposits, known as bitumin, are thick and gooey and smell like asphalt. They require dilution with natural gas condensate or light oil to ship them via pipelines to refineries throughout the states and provinces to process into transportation fuel.

In the upgrading process, some carbon is removed and hydrogen is added to create the synthetic crude oil. The entire process is very energy intensive, releases substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, and involves massive consumption of natural gas and water.

Tar sands oil is heavier than traditional light crude oil and requires higher pressures to keep it flowing, increasing the risk of pipeline ruptures.

In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying diluted tar sands oil from Indiana to Ontario broke and spilled nearly 1 million gallons into a 40-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup process is ongoing, with periodic efforts to remove the oil that sank to the bottom of the river. Cleanup costs have exceeded $1 billion — and counting.

A subsequent break in a 60-year-old Exxon Mobil pipeline in Mayflower, Ark., spilled tar sands oil, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes. The pipeline had been modified to reverse its flow and expand its capacity to send tar sands oil south to Texas from Patoka, Ill. The oil is shipped to Patoka from Steele City, Neb., which received it via a pipeline from Alberta.

An article in National Wildlife magazine has called for the replacement of the two 4-mile-long, 60-year-old Enbridge pipelines that carry tar sands oil across the Straits of Mackinac out of concern for a potential oil spill that could adversely impact water quality in lakes Michigan and Huron.

Another plan to carry tar sands oil across Canada and through the Midwest to New England would use more than 1,800 miles of pipeline built in the 1950s to carry conventional oil. The project would require an additional 870 new miles of pipeline.

The conversion of existing pipelines to carrying tar sands oil is a less costly and lengthy process that avoids the public scrutiny involved in creating new pipelines. However, older pipes have stress corrosion cracks in the steel that can spread when subjected to the bigger pressure swings characteristic of shipping tar sands oil.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has called upon the Barack Obama administration to examine the risks involved in converting older pipes to transport tar sands oil.

In Illinois, the new 650-mile Flanagan South Pipeline is proposed to carry tar sands oil from Flanagan to Cushing, Okla., a major crude oil storage site. It will parallel an existing pipeline built in the 1960s.

As production of tar sands oil expands, so does the pressure to use pipelines to export the landlocked oil supply to global markets. Nikiforuk believes the tar sands should be used to accelerate a Canadian transition to a low-carbon economy, rather than sharing the pain of energy interdependence.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 9-15, 2013, issue

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