The Dirt :: Double Issue :: April 3, 2013


Wednesday, April 03, 2013


“The Mayflower tar sands spill is another warning of the potential costs of the tar sands industry’s reckless expansion plans … [and] offers us a small sample of the risk that tar sands pipelines pose to American communities.”

~ Anthony Swift,  Attorney for NRDC’s International  Program


This could happen in your neighbourhood

Arkansas oil spill warns of tar sands pipeline risks

The dangers of transporting tar sands oil became starkly evident last week when black, Alberta crude flowed through backyards, streets, canals and streams in Mayflower, Arkansas. Tens of thousands of gallons of tar sands diluted bitumen, or dilbit, was released from a rupture in Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline, a 70-year-old pipeline that runs from Patoka, Illinois to Nederland, Texas, underlining the risks inherent in building more tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL, which would be nine time bigger than the Pegasus pipeline.

In 2010, a pipeline spilled one million gallons of tar sands dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River watershed,  demonstrating that diluted bitumen spills were significantly more challenging and expensive to clean up and more damaging to the environment, particularly water bodies, than conventional crude. Tar sands dilbit pipelines typically operate at significantly higher temperatures than conventional crude pipelines, increasing their risk of rupture due to external corrosion and other factors.

“The Mayflower tar sands spill is another warning of the potential costs of the tar sands industry’s reckless expansion plans,” wrote NRDC’s Anthony Swift in a blog post. “Nearly three years after the Kalamazoo river spill, tar sands pipeline companies are pushing ahead with major expansion plans without doing due diligence of the risks associated with tar sands diluted bitumen transport on pipelines…. [The] Pegasus pipeline rupture offers us a small sample of the risk that tar sands pipelines pose to American communities.”

NRDC and other environmental groups have called on government regulators to identify risks associated with tar sands pipelines and develop safety regulations to address those risks before any new dilbit pipelines are built. Information has continued to pile up confirming many of the concerns raised by NRDC and other environmental groups: pipelines moving tar sands are more likely to leak, leak detection systems are unlikely to detect tar sands spills when they happen, tar sands spills are significantly more damaging than conventional spills, and conventional spills response measures are inadequate for containing and cleaning tar sands spills.

In an ironic twist, Think Progress has just reported that a bizarre technicality in U.S. law allowed Exxon Mobil to avoid paying into the federal oil spill fund responsible for cleaning up oil spills like the one in Mayflower. According to a thirty-year-old law in the US, diluted bitumen coming from the Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil, meaning pipeline operators planning to transport tar sands crude across the United States are exempt from paying into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The day after the Mayflower spill, Canadian academic and best-selling author Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that the Globe and Mail has called “an assault on the Keystone XL pipeline. Entitled “The Tar Sands Disaster,” Homer-Dixon stated that U.S. President Barack Obama would be “doing Canada a favour” by rejecting TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Canadians don’t universally support construction of the pipeline,” Homer-Dixon wrote. “A poll by Nanos Research in February 2012 found that nearly 42 percent of Canadians were opposed. Many of us, in fact, want to see the tar sands industry wound down and eventually stopped, even though it pumps tens of billions of dollars annually into our economy.”

Why? Homer-Dixon maintains that tar sands production “is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities” that “generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.” There’s also the fact that tar sands development “is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don’t like. Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.”

The Mayflower spill will only put more pressure on President Obama and the U.S. State Department to reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. To have your voice heard, visit and have your voice heard today.


Suncor leaks highlight risks to Athabasca River

suncor (1)

Last week, Suncor gushed an unknown quantity of potentially toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River. For 10 hours. If you think that’s bad, Suncor also released 2,200 barrels of toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River two years ago from the same site, which is located upstream from the communities of Fort Mackay and Fort Chipewyan. For three days.

According to the Globe and Mail, Suncor never bothered to issue a press release regarding the 2011 incident, which killed fish in a monthly experiment used to test for toxicity. The Fort McKay First Nation just downstream from Suncor said it has tried to get details from the Alberta government about which chemicals were released, but the data “hasn’t materialized,” said Daniel Stuckless, manager of environmental and regulatory affairs for Fort Mackay.

Two years later, the Alberta government has finally (and belatedly) made public some of the details of the 2011 spill and issued an enforcement order requiring Suncor to clean up its act. That’s right, two years later.

The government claims the enforcement order is not related to last week’s release of polluted water from the same site, but given lack of transparency regarding the first leak, it’s tough to take them seriously. The government has released no information about how much pollution was released in the latest spill, or how toxic it was. No one even has seen a photo of the broken and leaking pipe, which had frozen.

Eleven organizations representing environmental, First Nations and landowner associations sent a letter to the Alberta government last Wednesday, demanding to know more about the leak “so Albertans can judge for themselves the impact of this spill.”

“This is all information that Suncor and the Alberta government should know and be immediate public knowledge,” read the letter, addressed to Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen, “but we remain in the dark.”

The Alberta government promised to respond to the letter immediately, but so far, no additional details have been made public.

Meanwhile, Imperial Oil soon will begin operation of its Kearl mine that will eventually produce 345,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day, in the absence of a promise to ensure the protection of the Athabasca River, the latest in a series of broken promises by the Alberta provincial and federal Canadian government to protect the critical watershed that surrounds the tar sands region.

The Kearl mine was approved in 2007 with the specific understanding, according to the decision approving the mine, that measures to protect the river would be implemented.  These measures were to include a water management framework that protects river flows from excessive tar sands water withdrawals.  Today, a key element of that framework – an ecological base flow – has not been established and there are no measures in place to ensure that tar sands operators stop withdrawals from the river especially during low flows.

“It is unacceptable that in nearly six years, there are still no measures in place to protect the Athabasca River from massive water diversions that leave the river dry,” wrote Danielle Droitsch, director of NRDC’s Canada Project from Washington, D.C.  “The Alberta government has again failed to establish critical  environmental safeguards.  Instead, the provincial and federal government continue to mislead the public with false information claiming the existing Athabasca River Water Management Frameworksets mandatory limits on withdrawals.”

According to the Pembina Institute, the Joint Review Panel recommended that the Kearl mine (KOS) was in the public interest as long as rules were introduced that would halt river withdrawals during low flow periods. The decision report states that “The Joint Panel finds that the KOS Project is in the public interest for the reasons set out in this report. The Joint Panel concludes that the project is not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects, provided that the recommendations and mitigation measures proposed by the Joint Panel are implemented.”

Those specific recommendations included that, “Phase II of the Water Management Framework be implemented by January 1, 2011, in keeping with the stated commitments of the governments of Alberta and Canada,” and that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Alberta Environment“incorporate an ecological base flow into the final Water Management Framework for the Athabasca River.”

“In the circular reasoning that has become common in oilsands decision-making,” wrote the Pembina Institute’s Director of Oil Sands Jennifer Grant, “the Panel based its recommendation that the project be approved on the assumption that the rules would be strengthened, rather than on the likely impacts of the project under existing regulations.”

Protecting the Athabasca River is not the only promise that remains unfulfilled. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions, growing tailings volumes, and the failure to protect caribou also undermine the entire industry’s efforts to convince the public that the tar sands are being developed in a clean and responsible manner.

“We still are failing to see the changes required to back [these claims] up,” wrote Grant. “Six long years have passed since the Joint Panel recommended that a zero-withdrawal low-flow limit must be implemented to protect the Athabasca River. Proceeding with new oilsands projects in the absence of this limit is simply unacceptable, and threatens the credibility of Alberta and Canada’s oilsands regulatory process.”

This legacy of broken promises to establish strict measures to address the growing and negative impacts on the water resources of the tar sands region, Droitsch maintains, deserves more attention and scrutiny particularly as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is being reviewed by the U.S. State Department.

Solving the Canadian oil industry’s climate pollution problem


The Pembina Institute has just released a new set of recommendations for the oil and gas sector that are necessary to get Canada on track to hit its national climate target. Will the government finally implement them or continue with business-as-usual?

The federal government says it will publish regulations to limit greenhouse gas pollution from producing and processing oil and gas before the summer. The Pembina Institute’s analysis indicates that the oil and gas sector needs to make a 42 per cent reduction from its projected 2020 emission level for Canada to achieve its 2020 climate goals.

“The oil and gas sector accounts for nearly a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution, and right now there are zero federal constraints on the sector’s emissions,” said Clare Demerse, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute.

“With a renewed focus on climate change in the U.S., and as a decision approaches on the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline proposal, Canada’s track record on greenhouse gas pollution is under the microscope. Strong regulations would be good news for Canadians and for our economy.”

From 2010 to 2020, emissions from the tar sands are expected to more than double, making it Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. The projected growth in the tar sands is a major reason why the government’s modelling shows that Canada is on track to miss its 2020 climate target by over 100 million tonnes — more than the emissions from Canada’s entire electricity sector.

Alberta’s intensity-based greenhouse gas regulation is being considered as a model for federal regulations. If Ottawa uses Alberta’s architecture, it would need to significantly strengthen the Alberta policy to get Canada on track to hit its 2020 target. This would entail:

  • Setting a sector-wide target that at least reaches a 42 per cent intensity improvement;
  • Setting a price of at least $100 per tonne by 2020 for payments into the technology fund, though a price on the order of $150 per tonne would be much more likely to close the gap; and
  • Limiting companies’ access to offset credits.

The approach recommended in this report would increase average costs for a typical in situ tar sands facility by an estimated $2.87 per barrel in 2020, after accounting for interactions with royalty and corporate tax rates. A barrel of tar sands bitumen regularly sells for about $70.

Read the whole report here.

More evidence the tar sands industry is in deepening trouble



Alberta’s tar sands industry took a couple of major hits over the last two weeks, in large part because of the great job clean energy advocates have done raising the profile of the problems and risks associated with the dirty energy project.

As we wrote about in the last issue of The Dirt, Germany’s largest and most prestigious scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association Research Centers, recently pulled out of a project focused on improving environmental and engineering performance in the Alberta tar sands.

Frank Schwabe, Member of the German Parliament, released a statement saying the Helmholtz Association quit this research over fears that involvement in the tar sands was damaging the institution’s reputation. “Although the [research] project appears to seek a sustainable approach,” Schwabe said, “this is done only to make a deeply problematic, highly environmentally damaging business a little less problematic in order to justify strengthening and expanding the tar sands industry.”

“As oil production from tar sands is viewed very negatively in Germany, it is difficult to explain why such a research project for tar sands is funded with public monies – especially considering that the project is being undertaken in a country that has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol. Canada´s withdrawal from the Protocol in 2011 was perceived as an affront by the majority of Germans.”

The real and perceived environmental and economic risks associated with tar sands development are also influencing capital investment. Total E&P Canada Ltd., the Canadian arm of France’s Total SA, chose to take a $1.65-billion loss rather than continue its involvement in in the Voyageur tar sands upgrading plant. Total E&P sold its 49 per cent interest in Voyageur to Suncor Energy. The two companies pulled the plug on the plant because it no longer made economic sense.

The move is largely the result of increased production of light oil in the United States, which, according to the Calgary Herald, is “challenging the economics of unsanctioned bitumen projects and of new processing plants used to convert raw bitumen into light oil.”

Canadian divestment campaign escalates on Fossil Fool’s Day


The Canadian Fossil Free divestment campaign kicked into high gear last week, when hundreds of students at fifteen campuses across Canada took action on the Fossil Fools Day, the first national day of divestment actions since the Fossil Free movement came to Canada in February.

The students called out “an industry that is planning to cook the planet, is responsible for destroying land, polluting the air and water, and violating the rights of people around the world, and an industry whose business model means burning over five times the amount of carbon our planet can handle.” Students also gathered hundreds of student signatures calling on campus administration to divest their universities’ endowments from fossil fuels.

The movement also got some spirited support from one of Canada’s political heavyweights. “The most important university campaign right now is the divestment of funds from the fossil fuel industry,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May in a speech at Concordia University in Montreal. “ (Include photo).

The goal of the campaign is to convince college and university presidents and boards to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years. As the campaign grows we want to see the same from religious funds and other public funds.

Tar sands expansion contravenes Alberta’s caribou policy

woodlandcaribou credit caribou-pictures com

Despite claims of responsible and sustainable tar sands development, the Alberta government continues to sell new petroleum and natural gas leases in five threatened caribou range areas – including the tar sands region – despite unacceptably high industrial disturbance of caribou habitat in those areas. The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) has called on the Alberta government to cease new surface leasing and new disturbance permits in Alberta caribou ranges and to make good on its promises to maintain and restore caribou habitat.

“These new leases violate Alberta’s 2011 woodland caribou policy that places an immediate priority on maintaining caribou habitat”, says Carolyn Campbell, AWA conservation specialist. “If Alberta is sincere about responsible energy development, the provincial government should defer new leasing and disturbance until enough caribou habitat can be restored to recover the populations.”

Alberta’s 2011 caribou policy states “The Government of Alberta is committed to achieving naturally sustaining woodland caribou populations.” According to Environment Canada, woodland caribou need at least 65 per cent undisturbed habitat to have even a 60 per cent chance of being self-sustaining.  In January 2012, Global Forest Watch Canada reported that the eight Alberta caribou herds in the tar sands region already had 64 per cent industrial disturbance.

According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, “Alberta’s existing project-level operating guidelines are woefully inadequate to address cumulative impacts of industry’s footprint, and have been recognized as such by the Alberta government and industry via Alberta Caribou Committee work. New protected areas announced for northeast Alberta will only cover 20% of caribou ranges and will allow conventional oil and gas leases that were already sold to be developed in those new parks.


Estimate clean-up costs for Enbridge’s Kalamazoo spill exceeds $1 billion

Kalamazoo background shot

As Enbridge invests in yet another tar sands pipeline project, clean-up costs for its Michigan pipeline leak that spilled one million gallons of tar sands crude continue to skyrocket. According to Inside Climate News, the Kalamazoo River spill, which occurred in July 2010, already has cost Enbridge more than $820 million in cleanup costs, but that figure could top $1 billion by the time additional EPA-mandated dredging is carried out. The goal of the new effort is to remove submerged oil from three areas of the river, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says oil is still accumulating. The EPA is worried fears that the oil could continue to spread and contaminate parts of the river that are currently clean.

The cleanup of the Kalamazoo has been especially challenging because the pipeline that ruptured was carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from Canada’s oil sands region. That’s the same type of oil that the Keystone XL pipeline would carry from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast if the project if the Obama administration approves the project.

Dilbit contains a mixture of oil-thinning chemicals, which soon evaporated, and heavy bitumen, which gradually sank. Much of the bitumen accumulated in the riverbed, where cleanup techniques used for spills of lighter, conventional oil weren’t effective.

Enbridge, meanwhile, announced it will spend $200 million on a new pipeline to connect Athabasca Oil Corp’s planned Hangingstone oil sands project in northern Alberta to its regional pipeline network. Enbridge also has applied to double pipeline capacity of Line 67 (formerly the Alberta Clipper pipeline) from the tar sands to Superior, Wisconsin. If the United States approves the expansions, Enbridge could ship nearly 880,000 barrels of tar sands crude a day through its pipelines by 2015, up from between 450,000 and 500,000 barrels a day now.

Vermont Senate passes legislation to keep tabs on tar sands pipeline

beautiful vermont

As tar sands crude flooded the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas, the Vermont Senatepassed a “tar sands pipeline bill” that would increase state oversight of oil pipelines. The bill, which was prompted by an application from Enbridge Oil to pipe oil from Alberta’s tar sands region to Montreal refineries, and then through Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on its way to Portland, Maine, is now on its way through the Vermont House, where it is expected to be passed with flying colours.

“I know we’ll take it up, and I would never predict what a committee would do ahead of time, but I know there’s a great deal of support for the bill in the House,” said Rep. David Deen, who is also chair of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee. “I fully expect some version of the bill to make it through my committee and the House.”

The Senate passed the bill despite pressure from the oil and gas industry. Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist Joseph Choquette, who represents the American Petroleum Institute, sent senators a letter on behalf of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., raising legal questions about the bill. The Portland Pipe Line Corp. owns the Portland-Montreal pipeline that connects Montreal oil refineries to Portland, Maine, and is the only company that would be subject to the new legislation.

“Treating this pipeline facility and company differently than all other regulated projects and entities that operate in Vermont would arguably run afoul of federal pre-emption principles that explicitly bar states from regulating oil pipeline safety; potentially constitute an impermissible attempt to nullify the President’s exercise of his foreign affairs power under the U.S. Constitution as reflected in the Presidential Permits issued to Portland Pipe Line and potentially impose an unconstitutional burden on foreign or interstate commerce.”

The Senate passed it anyway, and the House is expected to follow suit.

“Pipeline bullies” run the show in Canada


Andrew Nikiforuk has written another compelling piece in The Tyee, this time about how “pipeline company bullies” influence Canada’s National Energy Board and take private property from landowners without compensation.

The column is based on testimony given by David Core before the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. Core, a 58-year-old farmer and landowner and an expert on pipeline regulation, directly contradicted the testimony of National Energy Board (NEB) chairman Gaétan Caron as well as that of Mark Cory, Assistant Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada.

Core told the Senate that the NEB, which is overseeing the Northern Gateway hearings, is a captive regulator that does not work for Canadians but “protects the interests of pipeline companies.” Core also documented oil-pipeline spills that had not been cleaned up in Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, and provided evidence that the National Energy Board has left the industry off the hook for multibillion-dollar abandonment liabilities on 70,000 kilometers of federally-regulated pipelines.

Read the entire article here.

Sink or swim? False facts misrepresent risk of Northern Gateway spills


Despite the hard lessons it learned about sinking bitumen in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, Enbridge continues to assure the National Energy Board that the oily products it intends to carry west through the Northern Gateway – including bitumen – will stay on the surface if there is a pipeline leak or tanker spill, where they can be cleaned up using skimmers and other tools.

However, years of research, and the real-world experience in the Kalamazoo River, where clean-up costs are estimated to reach $1 billion, make clear that diluted bitumen does not float in an accident, Merv Fingas, the former chief of research and development at Environment Canada who specialized in oil spills, told the Globe and Mail.

Sinking bitumen makes an already “really messy situation” in the case of a spill “orders of magnitude more difficult,” said Eric Swanson, a director for the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative. Art Sterritt, executive-director with Vancouver-based Coastal First Nations, said heavy crude could deal a double blow in case of an accident: “It’s going to float for a while and it’s going to wipe out the foreshore, then it’s going to sink and it’s going to wipe out the bottom.”

But Enbridge Dr. Alan Maki maintains that, “It is an immutable fact of physics that they will float. They simply cannot sink in water.” Dr. Alan Maki, who holds a Master’s in aquatic biology and has served as a witness for Enbridge, told the NEB in February. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Fingas, said “that’s not true.” The diluent, he said, “[evaporates] fairly rapidly, so you really have to look at the density of the base compound, the bitumen underneath it.”

Who to believe? The industry-funded expert, or the scientific evidence and a real-world example of how difficult it is to clean up a bitumen oil spill?


Hansen quits NASA to accelerate climate fight

If the U.S. government thought NASA climate scientist James Hansen has been a thorn in its side, just wait until he quits his job and becomes a full-time activist ready to take a more active role in lawsuits challenging the federal and state governments over their failure to limit emissions.

Power-drunk Conservatives hurting oil industry columnist Stephen Maher is concerned that the federal Conservatives’ cosy relationship with the oil industry, and its “power-drunk overreaching” and “hyper-aggressive approach” to weakening environmental protection policy, “may actually be counterproductive to the industry.”

Orwellian doublespeak in the tar sands 

Enjoy this tongue-in-cheek conversation between Canada’s Minister of Plenty and an Enemy of the State (the NewSpeak term for “environmentalist) published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.


The Dirt ~ April 16, 2013

By Der T. Tarsands Tuesday, April 16, 2013 QUOTE OF THE WEEK “It’s crazy. It helps Canada, but it does nothing for the United States. I don’t see why I need to be a mule for Canada to pump its tarsands oil through my ground and through my water. We …

The Dirt ~ April 10, 2013

By Dirty Tar Sands Wednesday, April 10, 2013 The best weekly review of tar sands and pipelinecampaign news and commentary. QUOTE OF THE WEEK “They’re highly organized, and they know exactly what they’re doing.” ~ John Kingston, writing about opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline for Platts, a leading source of …

Federal government implements Orwellian rules to limit pipeline oversight

By D. T. Sands Thursday, April 11, 2013 If there’s one thing the Harper government knows it’s this: If you don’t like the rules, just change ‘em. After gutting most of Canada’s federal environmental legislation to expedite tar sands development and pipeline proposals at the behest of the oil industry, …