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Is Keystone "Diluted Bitumen" Pipeline a Disaster Waiting to Happen?

2 min. read

According to a three-part series by InsideClimateNews (also available on eBook), a major spill of dirty, acidic, abrasive Canadian "diluted bitumen" from a "30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil" into a Michigan creek and river in  July 2010 was clearly a disaster in and of itself. Even worse, that spill could foretell even worse to come if the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is ultimately approved. According to InsideClimateNews:

...Diluted bitumen is the same type of oil that could someday be carried by the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. If that project is approved, the section that runs through Nebraska will cross the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water for eight states as well as 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water...

No independent scientific research has been done to determine who is right. But a seven-month investigation of the Enbridge spill by InsideClimate News has revealed one fact neither side disputes: The cleanup of the Kalamazoo River dilbit spill was unlike any cleanup the EPA had ever tackled before.

Instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river's bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use. Meanwhile, the benzene and other chemicals that had been added to liquefy the bitumen evaporated into the air.

How bad is "dilbit?" As InsideClimateNews explains, it "has the consistency of peanut butter and must be diluted to flow through pipelines."  What it's diluted with is a hodgepodge of chemicals called "diluents," the exact makeup of which is considered a "trade secret," but which "often includes benzene, a known human carcinogen." Once it spills, "dilbit" is extremely difficult to clean up, as it sinks to the bottom and is "hard to remove it without destroying the riverbed." As for "dilbit"'s effect on pipelines, "watchdog groups contend that dilbit is more corrosive than conventional oil and causes more pipeline leaks;" unsurprisingly, the industry "disputes that theory," but with "no independent studies to support either side."

Given the nature of "dilbit" and its risks, does it make sense to run a major pipeline transporting this stuff across the Ogallala aquifer, "which supplies drinking water for eight states as well as 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water," or is this a disaster waiting to happen? We recommend that you read the InsideClimateNews series and decide for yourself.