To Pipeline or not to Pipeline

:: Previously ::

A few years ago, while the press was providing non-stop coverage of the devastating explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a less “exciting” pipeline spill happened in Michigan, garnering almost no coverage at all. The spill occurred in a stretch of pipeline that was first installed in 1950, which had previously run incident-free:

… At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners…

The monitors detected benzene levels that ranged from below 50 parts per billion (ppb) to as high as 200 ppb. Some alarming spikes-6,250 ppb and even 10,000 ppb-showed up over patches of oil on the water and away from homes.

In that particular spill, Enbridge did not follow the protocols that were in place for spill response. When certain alarms sounded, they were supposed to stop the flow of oil in the line. Unfortunately, those alarms tend to sound fairly frequently, because a spill is not the only possible trigger – an air bubble in the pipe can also trigger the alarms. Since air bubbles are fairly common, the crews are accustomed to doing the exact opposite of what should be done in a spill: pump extra oil at higher pressure to try to push the bubble out of the line. You can guess what happens when you push extra oil at higher pressure into a pipe that has a 6 foot hole in it. If you’re having trouble picturing it, there are 150 families in Michigan can tell you from personal experience; or perhaps this photo of the Kalamazoo river will help:

photo: (c) MIoilspill

That was in 2010, and they’re still cleaning up the spill. 150 families lost their homes, animals are still being killed in certain areas by the thick “oil,” and they are still trying to figure out how to remove the glop from the river bed. Unlike actual oil, the “oil” in a tar sands pipeline is actually “diluted bitumen” (more on that classification later), and diluted bitumen sinks. Oil floats. The equipment that exists for cleaning up oil spills is designed to deal with a substance that floats. It is useless against a substance that sinks.

:: More after the jump ::

:: Currently ::

But there are more recent examples. The past week has provided a tidy trio of oil spill news.

First, a train carrying tar sands “oil” derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 – 30,000 gallons of the stuff (reports vary).

That spill gave encouragement to pipeline promoters, who claimed no such thing could happen with a pipeline, so KXL should be built post-haste!  

Alas, a couple of days later, a stretch of Exxon’s Mayflower pipeline burst under a residential neighborhood in Arkansas, dumping 10,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) into back yards, basements, storm drains, and now the local lake, once again putting the lie to the claims that long-extant pipelines are hazard-free.

In between last week’s episodes of tar sands fun, Exxon Mobil was hit with a $1.7 million fine for having failed to shut down a pipeline near the Yellowstone river during a major flood event in 2011, despite government warnings that the severe flooding put the pipeline at risk of rupture. Exxon’s decision resulted in 42,000 gallons of oil being dumped into the pristine (formerly, anyway) Yellowstone river when the raging flood waters caused the pipeline to break.

There are three key elements to note about pipelines and tar sands:

1) Pipelines work great until the moment they fail.

2) Tar sands spills are much more destructive and much harder to clean up than conventional oil.

3) Oil companies don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. Just for fun, here’s another example.

This brings us to:

:: Today ::

There’s nothing like ignorance when it comes to energy policy. And there’s nothing like the Caledonian Record for providing examples.

In this morning’s paper, the editor, Todd Smith, had these words of wisdom, regarding S.58, a bill passed by the Senate to require Act 250 review for new pipelines or changes to existing pipelines (other than repairs):

The bill targets an oil pipeline that has run quietly, since the 1940s, through a corner of the Northeast Kingdom. Theoretically it could be used to move Canadian tar sand oil but there are no plans, by anyone, to do so.

ed. note: no plans, sort of…

To be clear, the NEK pipeline has zero negative impact on Vermont and never will.

Those are Smith’s actual words – “never will.” He’s clearly a brilliant logician, saying, essentially:

Since nothing has gone wrong yet, nothing can ever go wrong.

Wow, that’s awesome! I’m wondering if he might swing by my house and apply his “never go wrong” magic to my cars. I’ve had terrible luck – they’ll run great for years, and then, one day, things start breaking and I find myself financing a new boat for my mechanic, until I reach the point where I’m either getting a new car, or the mechanic is upgrading to a yacht.

Besides the obvious logical fallacy in Smith’s premise, there’s another reason a shift to tar sands is riskier than continuing to run processed liquid heating oil through the pipes:

Tar sands “oil” isn’t oil. We use the word oil as a shortcut reference to the eventual end product. However, before it’s processed, it is actually a thick tar that can’t flow on its own, called “bitumen.” In order to flow, it has to be thinned. What runs through the pipes is “diluted bitumen.”

One of the primary thinning agents is benzene. From OSHA [emphasis mine]:

Benzene can affect your health if you inhale it, or if it comes in contact with your skin or eyes. Benzene is also harmful if you happen to swallow it.

If you are overexposed to high concentrations of benzene … you may feel breathless, irritable, euphoric, or giddy; you may experience irritation in eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. You may develop a headache, feel dizzy, nauseated, or intoxicated. Severe exposures may lead to convulsions and loss of consciousness.

Repeated or prolonged exposure to benzene, even at relatively low concentrations, may result in various blood disorders, ranging from anemia to leukemia, an irreversible, fatal disease. Many blood disorders associated with benzene exposure may occur without symptoms.

The EPA is required to set two types of contamination levels for pollutants in water. One of those, the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) indicates the maximum amount of the contaminant that can be present in water before it affects your health.

The MCLG for Benzene:

The MCLG for benzene is zero. EPA has set this level of protection based on the best available science to prevent potential health problems.

The EPA also has an “Enforceable Regulation” level, called the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). If this much benzene is found in water, the source must be found and eliminated, and, the water cannot be used for drinking and should not be used for bathing:

0.005 mg/L or 5 parts per billion.

To give you a sense of what this means: one single drop of benzene makes 75,000 gallons of water unsafe.

Remember the benzene levels found in the air in the Michigan spill? No? They’re in the first quote block at the beginning of this post – scroll on up and take a look, then come on back and think about those numbers in context.

There are some estimates on how much airborne benzene may or may not cause lasting harm to people who breathe such concentrations, but unfortunately, those estimates were of no help to the health department in Kalamazoo, because they’re designed based on certain types of industrial exposures. There is no information for the exposures that occurred in Michigan, and there were no measurements taken in most homes (except a few private measurements taken by Enbridge, the results of which they refuse to release) in the area, so even if there were health estimates, no one knows what kinds of exposures were experienced for what durations by the affected families.

So, tar sands “oil” not only presents much more significant cleanup issues, it also presents health risks of unknown severity.

Good thing the pipeline “never will” pose any kind of risk!

But, wait! There’s more from Mr. Smith’s editorial:

At almost exactly the same time the Senate refused Act 250 environmental oversight for new industrial wind projects, as had been proposed in S.30. The bill was intended to protect our mountains and forests from the well-documented destruction done to them by industrial development.

I could link to all the stories from right here on GMD that illustrate that the “destruction” is seriously overstated and something entirely other than “well-documented” but it would take up lots of space – just use the search mechanism.

There’s a different point I’d like to address in the above quote:

Smith implies that wind development is harmful because it’s “industrial development,” which is why he opposes it. (For those in need of remedial grammar: “implies” means “to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement.”)  

If Smith feels that is the case, then why did his paper glowingly name Bill Stenger the Northeast Kingdom’s “man of the year,” for Stenger’s promised Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative? The description of the planned development indicates massive amounts of exactly the kind of “destruction” Smith decries, and worse [emphasis mine]:

  • New ski resort hotels and facilities at both ski areas
  • A window manufacturing plant
  • Research and manufacturing plant of artificial organs and supplies
  • Clean rooms to attract hundreds of researchers and hire local technicians
  • A waterfront hotel and conference center on Lake Memphremagog
  • Expanding the Newport State Airport in Coventry
  • Warehouse space
  • A Walmart store

The story closes with:

Suddenly, the fear and the thrill is for the exciting unknown, where a Walmart store – which local leaders say will come – is just a small development compared to Stenger’s projects.

For the hope and the excitement he has created, coupled with the belief that he is a man who carries through on promises, Bill Stenger has to be the 2012 man of the year for the Northeast Kingdom.

Smith ends today’s editorial with this coup de grace:

Industrial wind projects rape the environment and have no impact on Vermont’s carbon footprint.

Mandating environmental review for the (harmless) former but preventing it for the (destructive) latter is pure ideological hypocrisy.

There is so much in those tiny sentences. Let’s start with carbon footprint:

Vermont’s carbon footprint is only part of the pollution picture. What will change, immediately, is the amount of coal burned to power the ISO New England Grid, which directly impacts Vermont’s air quality, in a good way.

As to hypocrisy: please see the Caledonian Record’s glowing praise of Stenger’s development initiative. There’s definitely hypocrisy afoot, but it’s not in the legislature.

As to the “(harmless) former” – well, this entire post has been about the “harmless” pipelines that have turned out to be anything but “harmless.”

And lastly, I respectfully refer Mr. Smith to yesterday’s Dear Joe post. Though, in case he doesn’t want to actually bother clicking a link:

Putting up windmills has nothing to do with sexual assault – which is why comparing the windmills to sexual assault (aka: rape) is so offensive to those who have suffered deep and lasting trauma.

There’s one more tidbit, that should be of interest to those wondering why the folks in Maine would even consider taking on the increased risk of pumping tar sands bitumen through their aging pipeline:?

A 1980 law ensures that diluted bitumen is not classified as oil, and companies transporting it in pipelines do not have to pay into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Other conventional crude producers pay 8 cents a barrel to ensure the fund has resources to help clean up some of the 54,000 barrels of pipeline oil that spilled 364 times last year.

This means that the companies who could wreck our region with their thick, heavy, carcinogenic, “black gold,” do not have to clean up after themselves, should a pipeline function in a manner other than “as designed.”

The taxpayers and traditional oil companies get to have all the costly “fun,” while the bitumen pumpers laugh all the way to the offshore bank.  I bet our friends at the Portland Pipe Line Corporation are practically drooling at the prospect of eliminating those cleanup fund payments.

Sure, the reversal of flow and change in content is “not planned,” but looking at the PPLC’s statements regarding what they may want to do with the pipeline, the planning stage probably isn’t far behind.

3 thoughts on “To Pipeline or not to Pipeline

  1. your regular updates & addition to GMD. These environmental stories are complete, accurate & give an expanded broader view of the subject matter. Only way to combat ignorance, hypocracy & misinformation is cold hard truth.

    Many of the stories on GMD relate to bad news so kind of depressing, however keeping head in sand because ignorance is so blissful isn’t the answer.

    Writing is a lot of work, many thanks.  

  2. We just don’t hear about them.

    DEBATE    AIR DATE: April 3, 2013

    After Oil Spill in Arkansas, Weighing Risks of Keystone Pipeline Extension

    Last year in the U.S., 364 pipeline spills occurred, resulting in the dumping of 54,000 barrels of oil, according to the Department of Transportation.

    On average-that’s one every frikkin day!

    We saw with the Kalamazoo spill, 800,000 barrels — gallons were spilled from external corrosion

    [..]Kalamazoo, Mich., became
    the most expensive onshore pipeline spill in history

    , much because of the unique behavior of tar sands when it spills.

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