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Latest Pair of Oil Accidents Fuel Opposition to Keystone Pipeline Extension

The BP crisis first provoked a closer look at Keystone XL a year ago as environmental security became a national concern

May 12, 2011
Rainbow Pipeline Spill

A recent controversial study by NRDC and other advocacy groups said that because oil sands pipes carry a highly corrosive and acidic mix of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate, they raise the risk of spills and damage to waterways and communities.

The authors said that internal corrosion has caused more than 16 times as many spills in the Alberta pipeline system as the U.S. system because of bitumen.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in an e-mail to SolveClimate News that "while there have been incidents" on Keystone "none relate to the pipeline itself."

"There is no issue with the integrity or the operation of Keystone," he said.

Alberta's Worst Spill Since 1975

Howard has also found himself defending Keystone XL in the face of what he calls an "unrelated [oil] incident" in his own country.

On April 29, the province of Alberta suffered its worst spill in 36 years when a pipeline broke in a remote area of boreal forest east of the Peace River, some 7.5 miles from the community of Little Buffalo in Lubicon Cree First Nation traditional territory. It released 28,000 barrels along the pipeline's 30-meter right-of-way and in pools of stagnant water.

The Rainbow system, owned by Calgary-based Plains Midstream Canada, a subsidiary of Houston, Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline (PAA), was built in 1965 and runs 480 miles from a pipeline in northwestern Alberta to the provincial capital of Edmonton, where oil is processed for U.S. and Canadian markets. PAA is one of the largest oil and gas transportation and storage firms in North America.

The company has said the cause was human error. It claims that soil surrounding a section of the pipe wasn't properly compacted after it was excavated during a 2010 maintenance check, causing stress on the line. As of May 10, 36 percent of the oil has been recovered.

The provincial government and PAA were accused of keeping the spill under wraps for days following the breach. In 2006, the same line ruptured from corrosion and cracking, spilling about 180 barrels.

Tar Sands Blunder

Friends of the Earth quickly pointed to the Alberta spill to puncture TransCanada's safety claims by calling the incident a "a major tar sands oil pipeline spill" that "adds to doubts" about Keystone XL.

But for now, the Rainbow only transports light sweet crude, not bitumen — though PAA, which purchased the pipeline in 2008 from Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, has made it clear on its website that it has oil sands ambitions. "This [Rainbow] system ... is favorably positioned relative to long-lived reserves in certain areas of the Canadian oil-sand deposits," it says.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an oil sands expert with NRDC, told SolveClimate News that initial confusion about what was spilling from the Rainbow pipeline in late April isn't surprising. That’s because either conventional oil or diluted bitumen could have been flowing at that particular pipeline location in Alberta.

While energy companies know what these pipelines are carrying at all times, they need to make sure that the public, emergency responders and local communities have that same information, Casey-Lefkowitz continued.

"The point is that until that's publicly announced, you don't know what you're dealing with," she said. "So the big message a lot of us are sending is that we need to know immediately what is in those pipelines so if a spill occurs, people can respond properly. During a spill, diluted bitumen acts much differently from conventional oil."

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