Report: Tar Sands Oil Boosts Pipeline Risks

  • A map of current and proposed oil pipelines carrying raw tar sands oil in the U.S. and Canada. (From the report: Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks)

An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners broke last summer. It spilled more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

A new report warns a corrosive type of oil flowing through pipelines in Michigan might lead to more spills.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She’s one of the report’s authors.

She says the pipeline that broke last summer was carrying raw tar sands oil. It’s also called diluted bitumen.

“Diluted bitumen or the raw tar sands oil is more acidic, it’s more corrosive, it’s very thick so you need high pressure and heat to have it go through a pipe.”

Enbridge did not agree to be recorded for this story. But in an email statement, an Enbridge spokesperson said there can be several different types of crude oil in any of their pipelines at any given time.

Read the report

Response to the report from the Alberta government

NRDC response to the Alberta government


And that the type of crude oil that leaked at Marshall was from the Cold Lake area of Western Canada… which is classified as heavy crude.

The NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz says Enbridge has called tar sands oil by other names in the past.

“In the very first news reports about the Enbridge break, the head of Enbridge himself was denying that this was diluted bitumen, and yet the reports very clearly stated this was oil from the Cold Lake region, where that’s what they produce, they produce raw tar sands oil there. And it’s been since shown in court documents that that’s indeed what this was.”

She says raw tar sands oil is being transported through U.S. pipelines from tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada. She says Canadian refineries are reaching capacity… so oil companies are bringing more raw tar sands oil to U.S. refineries.

“And really what you’ve got is a U.S. pipeline system that was not built and was not regulated for anything other than conventional oil. And when you start putting material into it that is more corrosive and has very different characteristics, it’s not really something our pipelines are prepared for.”

And she says this puts the Great Lakes region at an increased risk that another spill will happen.

The official cause of the Kalamazoo River spill is still under investigation.

In an email statement, an Enbridge spokesperson said tar sands oil is no different from oil transported by other crude oil pipelines. And that their oil pipelines meet all Canadian and U.S. regulations. The spokesperson said the company has quote: “an intensive ongoing pipeline maintenance program.”

This is the Environment Report.

Like most Michigan cites, Grand Rapids’ budget is leaving little room for the extras in life. But Lindsey Smith reports they’re still finding ways to fund the creation of new parks:

Grand Rapids’ director of parks and recreation, Jay Steffen, was excited to address city commission this week.

“When I get up and talk about this park I’m reminded of a song by Joni Mitchell, where she said ‘paved over paradise to put up a parking lot.’ Well we hope to bring paradise back. (laughs)

The city wants to take a 2-and-a-half-acre-parking lot and turn it into, as Jay says, paradise. Pleasant Park would have a rain garden, native shrubs and trees… in a neighborhood that’s one of the most densely populated, with the least amount of green space. That’s why they’re targeting it.

Mayor George Heartwell told city commissioners not to let the $800,000 price tag discourage them.

“We’ve been nothing if not inventive in pulling together resources from the community.”

They’re applying for federal grants usually reserved for low income housing improvements for the park. Nearby neighborhood associations are collecting private donations. The city decides next month if it’ll apply for state grants too.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

And that’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.