Speaker warns of local tar sands oil threat
A local protest and a request for a town resolution against a suspected reversal of oil flow in the Portland Pipeline could be in the offing, following a presentation Tuesday at the Bethel Inn.
About two dozen people turned out to hear the Sierra Club’s Glen Brand outline the objections of his and other environmentally-minded organizations to what they say is a plan to bring tar sands oil through here.
Two pipelines, one of them 62 years old, currently carry crude oil 236 miles between Portland harbor and Montreal. The lines pass through Albany, West Bethel and Gilead.
Environmental groups worry that one of the pipelines could eventually carry tar sands oil in the opposite direction.
They cite a 2008 proposal by the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, which announced then a plan to move tar sands from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast by pumping it east to Portland, by way of its own pipelines and the PPL line, and loading it onto supertankers. The project was put aside a year later, after the economic recession hit.
But Enbridge now has a proposal to reverse the oil flow of some of its own pipelines from east-west to west-east through Ontario, a move the company says will only supply refineries in Montreal. The activity, however, has fueled speculation that the Maine line could again be brought into the picture.
Environmentalists describe tar sands oil as acidic, abrasive and, because it is more viscous than some crude, is carried under higher pressure and at higher temperatures than regular crude oil. These characteristics, they say, make it more likely to cause pipeline damage and spills. They claim that over a recent three-year period, Midwest American pipelines that carry tar sands oil spilled almost three times more crude oil per mile of pipeline than the U.S. average.
On Tuesday Brand described the characteristics of tar sands crude, and the dangers he and others see from a changeover in the product carried by the Portland Pipeline. He compared the oil to fine sandpaper flowing through a pipe.
He presented information on a spill two years ago on an Enbridge line in Michigan, which polluted the Kalamazoo River, sickening people and causing business losses nearby.
In a press release just this week, the National Transportation Safety Board said the Enbridge pipeline break “was the result of multiple small corrosion-fatigue cracks that over time grew in size and linked together, creating a gaping breach in the pipe measuring over 80 inches long.”
Brand said such an accident could happen here. The old Portland pipeline, he said, “is not built for this kind of corrosion,” and the implications should be thoroughly researched.
“Bethel is on the frontlines,” he said, along with other communities through which the pipeline passes.
Brand also talked about a possible larger effect of tar sands on the global climate picture, saying that mining tar sands consumes more energy than other kinds of oil extractions, and is therefore a greater threat to the environment.
Nonetheless, he said, the Canadian government “is really bullish” on tar sands projects.
Brand also noted that in March the Maine Senate passed a resolution in support of construction of the Keystone pipeline.
State Sen. John Patrick (D-Rumford), who attended Tuesday’s meeting, pointed out that the resolution passed on a partisan vote (17-15 in the Republican-controlled Senate). “We had no information to make a good judgment,” he said.
Brand said the Sierra Club is urging people concerned about a pipeline reversal to talk to their neighbors about it, write letters to newspapers, sign online petitions, promote town resolutions against it, and participate in a rally July 29 in Burlington, Vt., which will coincide with the New England Governors’ Conference.
He also said forums similar to Tuesday’s in Bethel are planned for other parts of Maine.
Patrick said people who want to get the ear of their local representatives would have a greater impact by calling them, rather than signing a form letter or petition.
He said he would consider writing a letter himself to the governor, expressing his concern for the environmental risk in his district.
Brand urged Bethel residents to work for a town resolution opposing a flow reversal.
Resident Seabury Lyon said tentative plans are also underway for a July 25 demonstration at Davis Park, with people dressed in black or other attire to symbolize the appearance of an oil spill.
For a Natural Resources Defense Council report on the Portland Pipeline issue go to www.nrdc.org/energy/files/Going-in-Reverse-report.pdf.
Pipeline companies respond
“These groups are holding news conferences and continually want to make it sound like there’s an active project, and there isn’t. We’re not going to get engaged in that kind of speculation. Just because Enbridge is doing A, doesn’t mean Portland Pipeline is automatically doing B,” said Ted O’Meara, spokesman for the Portland Pipeline Corp., last week.
On moving oil to any region, said O’Meara, “There’s got to be a demand for it. All these pipelines are heavily dependent on the market. Somebody’s got to want to get it from one place to another for that to happen.”
Graham White, spokesman for Enbridge, said last week that its current proposal to reverse the flow in Ontario pipelines would allow the company to bring “not just heavier [crude] products, but also primarily light products from the Bakken region (in the northern U.S. and Saskatchawan). Our anticipation is that they would be carrying mostly light products. In the future, if we get requests from customers to carry heavier products, we want that line to be capable of doing that. But that is to get it to the Montreal refineries. In terms of getting it past there, we have no pipeline past that region, or any plans at this time, past the Montreal refineries, so whomever takes it past, is up to them.”
O’Meara noted recent environmental and safety awards for PPL, and few spills over seven decades of pumping oil. He said there are regular inspections of the line, including inside-the-line inspections by Pipeline Inspection Gauges (PIGs).
As for Enbridge, regarding the safe flow of oil sands-derived crude [known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit], White said that in Canada and the U.S. “we have been transporting this product for decades. There is no evidence that it has greater internal corrosive properties, or that it has caused greater corrosion, than other oil products, and especially heavy oil products, which are commonly transported through almost all crude oil pipelines. There is evidence that suggests there is not significant additional pipeline corrosion to well-maintained and operated lines … and I think that’s the key, to ensure the integrity of the lines with any product, but also with heavier oil products, such as oil sands-derived crude.”
White also described Enbridge safety measures: “We have a high level of technology in our control centers. Technology is continually advancing. It is something we put hundreds of millions of dollars into. This year we’ve done more than 1,000 integrity digs along our lines. We physically dig it up to do a visual inspection. We also use inline tools, with highly sophistical sensors, that flow down the line with the product, and take readings. If there are any concerns whatsoever, we will dig it up and inspect the line. Our goal is no spills.”
White also cited a 2011 study by Alberta Innovates - Energy and Environment Solutions, an organization funded by the government of Alberta.
On its website AI describes itself as “ a catalyst for developing innovative, integrated ways to convert our natural resources into market-ready, environmentally responsible energy. We are the lead agency for energy and environmental research and innovation in Alberta. We bring together decision makers from government and industry, as well as research and technology organizations, to develop solutions for the biggest challenges facing Alberta's energy and environment sector.”
The study reviewed publicly-available statistics on Alberta crude oil, and compared the properties of several types of diluted bitumen oil to other heavy, medium and light crude oils.
The study sought to address a list of concerns that had been presented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, including those cited in the Maine/New England report.
Among the AI conclusions:
* Acid, sulfur, and salt concentrations can result in corrosion at temperatures greater than 200 Celsius at refineries, “but at the much lower pipeline transportation temperatures, the compounds are too stable to be corrosive and some may even decrease the corrosion rate.”
* The dilbit viscosities are comparable to those of heavy conventional crudes.
* Adjustment of the Alberta and U.S. pipeline failure statistics in order to compare on an equivalent basis “showed the Alberta systems (with a large percentage of dilbit lines) experienced comparable internal corrosion failure rates to the U.S. systems” (predominantly conventional crude lines).
*The review indicates “the characteristics of dilbit are not unique, and are comparable to conventional crude oils.”
In response to an NRDC claim that the Alberta pipeline system has had approximately 16 times as many spills due to internal corrosion than the U.S. system, the study noted that U.S. regulators “do not include all gathering lines [which bring oil from the fields to a main pipeline] in their hazardous liquids classification, whereas a large percentage of all Alberta lines are upstream gathering lines. Gathering lines are generally more prone to failure, since they contain more water and can contain corrosive carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases.” In addition, the Canadian oversight agency requires operators to report any pipeline incident, whereas U.S. data is based on incidents with a release of five gallons or more.
In a discussion about “underdeposit corrosion” in pipelines, the study notes that “a water layer on deposited sand particles in sludge deposited at the bottom of a line can form a water layer against the steel. The water will contain chloride salts, as well as bacteria, which now form a corrosive mix. But underdeposit corrosion is not unique to dilbit lines.” AI noted similar corrosion problems in the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
The study also looked at the effects of higher temperatures in the dilbit pipelines, noting that they may actually reduce corrosion rates beneath sludge deposits, “if the mechanism is controlled by microbial action.”
But on underdeposits the study concludes, “Little is known about the controlling factors of corrosion underneath sludge deposits, and it is recommended that research continue to improve our understanding of sludge formation, the resulting corrosion mechanism, the role of dilbit chemistry and solids, mitigation practices and frequencies, and preventive measures. Enbridge has been quite successful in mitigating underdeposit corrosion through a pigging and inhibition program. However, there are still many uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of each and the required frequency.”
For some of the areas of concern cited by the NRDC, the study notes a lack of data in some cases on the lighter crudes, as well as on dilbit.
For its part, an NRDC blog responding to the AI study says that the comparable rates of internal corrosion between Alberta and the U.S. are actually “a sign of trouble, as the U.S. pipeline system is on average twice as old as the Alberta pipeline system.” The blog also said that the transport of dilbit in large volume has been a relatively recent development, and has increased fourfold in the past 15 years.
The AI study can be found at http://ai-ees.ca/media/39178/dilbit-versus-conventional-crude.pdf; and the NRDC blog response at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/alberta_innovates_report_shows.html.