Seeking answers on oil sands crude corrosion

August 12, 2011

Environmental groups and the oil industry are battling on a new front in the long-running public relations war over Canada’s oil sands. This one concerns claims that crude wrung from the massive deposits is more corrosive to pipelines and hence presents a bigger risk of oil spills.

Green groups say the crude eats away at the inside of pipelines much more quickly than is the case with conventional oil and the industry says it doesn’t.

We took a look at the issue recently, and found a surprising lack of research dedicated specifically to the risks associated with shipping growing volumes of the tar-sands-derived oil on longer pipelines as the United States seeks to cut dependence on other imported crude.

It may be time to answer the question once and for all, and since so much distrust exists among the debate’s players, it’s likely only a formal, truly independent, peer reviewed study will do.

The U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council has led the charge among environmentalists pushing the corrosion theory and has called for a focused study. At least one Canadian regulator we spoke to for our story said he would be interested to see results of one.

But it raises big questions: who could perform such research, what weight would it have and how long might it take, given some major regulatory approvals now looming in the United States and Canada?

Of course, the issue has cropped up as the U.S. State Department weighs an approval for TransCanada Corp’s $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline to Texas from Alberta.

The department plans to issue a final environmental impact statement on the project this month with the target of making its decision by the end of this year. The Canadian government has said the project is key to plans for a national energy strategy, and has put its weight behind the proposal.

Environmental groups have said another controversial project, Enbridge Inc’s $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline across the Rockies to Canada’s West Coast from Alberta, would be susceptible to the same risks, if they exist.

The oil sands industry and governments in Canada have recent experience with scientific study changing the playing field.

Last summer, researchers from the University of Alberta, led by Erin Kelly and David Schindler, released a report showing oil sands plants were sending toxins into the Athabasca River watershed.

The study, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, blew years of contentions by a government-supported and industry-funded body — that pollutants in the region occur naturally — out of the water.

The work sent the provincial and federal governments scrambling to set up panels made up of respected scientists to gauge the quality of water-monitoring and issue recommendations on how to improve it.

The scale of all this work is sweeping, involving measuring numerous toxins, weather patterns, hydrology, industrial processes and regulatory policy.

So why not pipelines? Enlisting a university or scientific body to study various mixtures of oil on various types of steel may be less expansive in scope, but no less important as two countries face prospects of allowing steel conduits to be constructed across huge tracts of the continent.

After all, previous study of the impact of various types of soil on the outer walls of pipelines spawned major improvements in coatings that have boosted the durability of pipelines.

(TransCanada photo)


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It would appear that someone has put the cart before the horse.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Syncrude and Suncor have been shipping oil sand crude via pipeline out of Northern Alberta since the ’70s. Surely their experience and knowledge could quickly answer any questions. Sounds like yet another tactic in the extreme environmental effort to completely shut down the oil sands without considering the economic consequences to Canada and the need for a secure oil supply until such time as alternative energy sources can take over, i.e. at least 50 years from now.

Posted by grahamhicks | Report as abusive

It is not in a shippers interests to do research that might limit its ability to make money; one should not expect a shipper to conduct such research unless compelled to. Others lacking proof of harm, the shipper can credibly assert there is no harm, leaving it years or decades of profitable activity before remediation (if any) is required.

No one should be surprised by this self-serving approach, used time and again to further economic interests at the expense of health and environmental ones. The question arises what duty a shipper owes under the laws of the land.

Is failing to carry out preventative tests fostering an unlawfully willful ignorance? What access might others have to the alleged corrosive materials to do their own tests? And who has legal standing to complain, when a shipper who COULD have informed himself has remained willfully ignorant of the potential for harm?

Posted by RET_SFC | Report as abusive

With all the tens of thousands of oil leaks around the globe from petroleum company’s infrastructure, it would appear due diligence regarding safe, secure extraction and transportation of crude oil has been willfully ignored for better than 50 years now. It some point one has to accept the reality that governments around the globe have been complicit in that very unwillingness to act in the interests of the environment and the life these ecosystems supports.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive