The biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of

In 2010, there was an oil spill of nearly 1 million gallons on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.  You may not have heard about it.  The spill came from a leaking pipeline chock-full of diluted bitumen (“dilbit”), a particularly heavy mixture of tar sands oils (plus some lighter-weight stuff).  The company who owned the pipeline, Enbridge, had a leak prevention system in place, and just 10 days before the accident, told federal regulators that it could remotely detect and shut down a rupture in 8 minutes flat.  Unfortunately, it took 17 hours to confirm the spill – operators thought that a bubble was blocking the flow and restarted the flow multiple times to unblock it…only to discover a huge leak was the actual problem.

Apparently remote detection of leaking oil pipelines is pretty difficult, technically speaking, because the flow rate changes so frequently within the lines.  It’s hard to know if some oil is missing if you don’t know how much should be there in the first place.  And there have been more than 100 significant spills per year for the past 20 years.  So it kind of makes sense that environmentalists and farmers are nervous about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – politics aside, it does sound pretty risky to put that much oil on top of the Ogallala aquifer, water supply to a vast swath of the Midwestern US.

The 2010 Kalamazoo spill brought needed scrutiny to Enbridge, against which a record $3.7 million fine was levied, and will hopefully prompt the company to take safety a little more seriously.  But the spilled “dilbit” is still wreaking havoc on ~40 miles of the Kalamazoo River: being heavier than water, it sank beneath the riverbed and will cost ~$500 million to clean up.  Yikes.  Granted, an aquifer isn’t the same as a river – probably a spill would be pretty localized due to low flow rates – but again, is it worth the effort?  Is it so much to ask that these pipelines not leak?

The latest technology proposed by Keystone XL would be able to detect leaks larger than 1.5% of flow…which is nearly 500,000 gallons per day for the proposed flow rates.  Not that convincing, to be honest.  Oh, and did I mention that Keystone XL will be pumping dilbit, too?  That’s a high-risk proposition.  I think, given these facts, it’s very reasonable for American regulators to be hesitant about the pipeline, and hopefully we can hold the Keystone folks to a high standard while sensibly choosing routes around sensitive areas of the Ogallala aquifer.  Because if we veto this outright, the tar sands oil will travel by pipeline to the Pacific coast and be refined in China — not our problem, per se, but also not good for the environment.

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