pipelines aren’t all evil

I can’t put together a lot of analysis this week, but I can point you to some people who have.  In this case, we’re talking about pipelines for oil and gas delivery across the US.  I’ve mentioned some of the issues related to leak detection in the context of the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan before.  You might be surprised to know that there are already some 2.5 million miles of pipelines across the US for oil and gas delivery, and the number is going up with every new shale gas deposit or oil sands site.  ProPublica has compared the risk of pipeline failures vs. the risk of trucking oil/gas, using the analogy of travel by air vs. travel by car.  Yes, it’s risky (is anything truly risk-free?) but it’s less risky than the major alternative.

Apparently many of the leaking pipes are old, and were grandfathered in when regulations came out, just to avoid the excessive cost of digging up miles and miles of pipeline to check for their integrity.  I’d like to think that new pipelines could meet higher standards, such as in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama will evaluate in the next 4 years.  The National Academy of Sciences is also working on a scientific review of the risk to pipelines from carrying diluted bitumen, an especially corrosive form of crude oil; that report to advise government and industry is due out next year, and will probably play a significant role in the acceptance or rejection of the Keystone XL plans.

Let’s keep in mind that the oil and gas boom in the US and Canada is boosting our economy, and natural gas prices in the US are cheap enough now (sometimes 30-50% the cost in Europe and Asia) that factories may be able to offset our higher labor costs with lower energy costs, and relocate back to the US.  Let’s also keep in mind that there are environmental benefits to keeping oil and gas production subject to American/Canadian laws rather than in places we might consider more likely to cut corners.  Enbridge is in big trouble with regulators over the spill in Michigan.  It’s a big deal in Canada that scientists have found oil sands contaminants in snow and rain nearby to the mines and not been able to fully disclose their results.  Our two nations have an active population that is keeping an eye on these things.  Better to mine/refine/deliver oil and gas with much oversight and supervision, and to challenge our regulators to hold these companies to account, than to punt on development and send jobs abroad, in my mind.

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.