Oil spills from pipelines and tanker trains put risks in spotlight as new projects await approval

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

There's never a good time for an oil spill but the spate of accidents involving transported crude oil couldn't be less timely.

Americans are furrowing their brows at Canada after a six-decade-old ExxonMobil Corp. underground pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas on March 29, spilling at least 12,000 barrels of Canadian heavy crude and water into the town's back yards.

The breach of the Pegasus pipeline that runs between Texas and Illinois seemed to reinforce environmentalists' argument that this is what could happen if President Barack Obama approved construction of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

"The line break in Arkansas may provide a real-world test of a hotly contested issue: Is tar sands oil more corrosive and damaging than other types of crude?" National Geographic suggested in an article this week.

[ Related: Exxon oil spill cleanup ongoing in Arkansas, pipeline shut ]

Opponents of oil sands development in Alberta and Saskatchewan believe they can strangle it by choking off its pathways to market. They've lobbied hard against Keystone XL and against Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, which aims to pipe oil sands bitumen crude to the northern B.C. town of Kitimat where a new export terminal would be built to ship it to Asia.

They warn that a bitumen spill, either from a pipeline break or a tanker accident on the coast, could be far more environmentally damaging because of the nature of the heavy oil and the chemicals used to dilute it for transport.

The industry has countered that if the pipelines are nixed or delayed, producers will be forced to ship oil by railway tank cars.

And as if on cue, a CP Rail train that included oil tank cars derailed Wednesday near White River, in northern Ontario, spilling 400 barrels of light crude oil. The Canadian Press reported that CP Rail had reopened the line by Thursday night.

The spill initially seemed small but crews discovered that much of the oil had leaked beneath the snow and it was 100 times larger than first thought. Cleanup work continued Friday.

“There is no indication from any of the sampling sites that the product has migrated beyond the containment berms,” CP spokesman Ed Greenberg told The Canadian Press.

Spills like this have always happened periodically but they seem to resonate more today as people realize millions of barrels of oil move under their feet or through their communities by road and rail.

Despite the recent pipeline breaks in Arkansas and the massive rupture of an Enbridge line in July 2010 that dumped more than a million gallons of heavy crude (roughly 32,000 barrels) into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, a U.S. government study found oil pipelines are less hazardous to people and the environment than shipping crude by road or rail.

[ Related: U.S. agency orders Enbridge to dredge Kalamazoo River after huge oil spill ]

Data from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Office from 1992-2011 found pipelines caused fewer deaths, injuries and environmental damage than the surface-transportation alternatives, Global News reported.

“If safety and environmental damages in the transportation of oil and gas were proportionate to the volume of shipments, one would expect the vast majority of damages to occur on pipelines,” according to a study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “This paper finds the exact opposite. The majority of incidents occur on road and rail.”

The Globe and Mail reported this week that environmentalists who form part of the U.S. Democratic Party's support base may be disappointed with Obama's call on Keystone XL.

Comments the president made at a fundraiser staged by billionaire Tom Steyer, a staunch Keystone opponent, suggest Obama may opt for the purported economic benefits of the project over environmental concerns.

"The politics of this are tough," he said at the Wednesday get-together.

Climate change — one of the key objections to oil sands projects is its carbon-intensive nature — is simply not top of mind among recession-battered Americans, Obama told the crowd without mentioning Keystone.

Obama made action on climate change a priority for his second administration and told supporters he'd work to persuade Americans there's no trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth, the Globe reported.

For Keystone opponents, the Arkansas spill was a godsend. Steyer is backing an anti-Keystone candidate in the election campaign to fill Secretary of State John Kerry's Massachusetts senate seat.

“When we showed footage of tar sands oil rolling down suburban streets in Arkansas, people in the focus groups were practically out of their chairs,” a consultant for the candidate told The Washington Post. “To a person, they were outraged. Two switched their votes on the spot.”

Canadians concerned that export options for oil sands crude may limited — either because of rejected pipeline projects or increasing U.S. production thanks to new recovery technologies — are pitching a domestic alternative. They want an existing east-west natural gas TransCanada pipeline converted and extend it to carry heavy crude.

[ More Brew: Saskatchewan sending unadoptable black dogs west to British Columbia ]

Proponents say it would reduce Eastern Canada's dependence on imported oil and ease the glut of bitumen crude that now forces producers to discount it for sale.

But as a Huffington Post article pointed out this week, environmentalists have the same objections to this proposal as other bitumen pipelines — risks from a ruptured line, elevated because of the nature of the product, and from potential tanker accidents if some of it is exported from the East Coast.

And, as the Post noted, the oil industry believes all three lines are needed if Canada wants to maximize its export potential in the long term.