What is Flowing Underfoot? New concerns over local oil pipelines

By JoshMogerman in News on Feb 19, 2011 9:00PM

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Kalamazoo River oil spill sign [photo by Sierra Club]
Sandblasting the inside of a pipeline seems like a pretty bad idea. But a a new kind of petroleum tied to last summer’s oil spills in Romeoville and the Kalamazoo River may be doing just that. Those claims come from a report making waves all over the U.S. and Canada detailing “DilBit” a kind of oil that is flowing with growing frequency under communities in suburban Chicago and Northwest Indiana on its way to area refineries.

Much of the oil coming to Chicagoland began as a thick, heavy, low-grade petroleum called bitumen, which is strip-mined or steamed out of Canada's tar sands. Traditionally, that petroleum, which has a peanut butter consistency, has been “upgraded” into something more closely resembling what we think of as oil before being pumped our way. But lately, the Canucks have run out of upgrading capacity and have been sending the stuff in a more raw form---mixing it with liquefied natural gas and other oil products to make it just thin enough to flow in a pipeline. A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pipeline Safety Trust, NWF, and Sierra Club highlights issues associated with that new and growing type of raw tar sands oil called “diluted bitumen” or “DilBit.” It has markedly different properties from other petroleum products, being more acidic and corrosive (due to increased sand particles still in the oil)---potentially scouring the inside of the pipes it travels through. And because it is so thick it requires high pressure and heat to get it to move in the pipeline. Reuters notes:

Plus, that different chemical composition — five to 10 times as much sulfur as conventional crude and more chloride salts — can weaken pipelines and make them susceptible to breaking during pressure spikes. As well, researchers found that refiners are discovering more quartz sand and other solid material in diluted bitumen that essentially sandblasts pipe interiors.

Those factors spell bad news for aging pipelines---and might explain some of those recent local messes. DilBit is moving through the Lakehead System, which was built in the 1960’s. Line 6A of that system brings in 1/3 of the oil from our biggest supplier (Canada) through Chicago on its way to Griffith, IN (near the controversial BP refinery in Whiting). That line ruptured in Romeoville last September, forcing cleanup of nearly 2,000,000 gallons of oil and contaminated water from nearby retention ponds. The event followed the much larger spill of the system's Line 6B in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which dumped nearly a million gallons of oil into the waterway and, for a short time, threatened to foul Lake Michigan. More than six-months later, that spill cleanup has not been completed and a stretch of the river will be closed to recreation this summer. DilBit was likely involved in both spill events.

Enviros aren’t the only ones concerned about increasing amounts of this fuel coming across the border, with its elevated carbon, heavy metals, and sulftur content. Earlier this month a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to tighten pipeline regulations, which currently do not differentiate DilBit from other types of oil. We aren’t sure of all the communities that the Lakehead System snakes through around here, but we have a bad feeling that we will all learn together next time the pipe pops…