Global environmental challenges
Seeking answers on oil sands crude corrosion
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.