The big news on Keystone XL on Tuesday was that President Barack Obama doesn’t think the pipeline, meant to carry Alberta’s oil sand crude to Texas refineries, can possibly be in the U.S.’s national interest if it will “significantly” contribute to a rise in global carbon emissions. As I wrote, the statement, uttered in the middle of the president’s major speech on climate policy, was open-ended enough to allow both Keystone supporters and its adversaries to declare victory. Still, some keen observers of cross-border affairs, such as Maclean’s Paul Wells, took the president’s decision to bring up the pipeline, even though he didn’t really have to, as an eerie sign.
But there was another Keystone development on Tuesday, one that delivered an unambiguous—if limited—victory to the pro-pipeline front.
A group of pipeline safety experts found that diluted bitumen from the oilsands, which Keystone would transport, was no more likely than other oil crude types to cause a spill. The group, known as Dilbit Committee, had been mandated by Congress last year to look at bitumen and spill risks and review pipeline safety regulations if necessary.
The key tidbit from the report reads:
The committee does not find any causes of pipeline failure unique to the transportation of diluted bitumen. Furthermore, the committee does not find evidence of chemical or physical properties of diluted bitumen that are outside the range of other crude oils or any other aspect of its transportation by transmission pipeline that would make diluted bitumen more likely than other crude oils to cause releases.
The finding contradicts arguments by some environmentalist groups that bitumen, the tar-like substance extracted from Alberta’s oil patch, corrodes or clogs pipelines, increasing the risk of ruptures. Oil producers mix the bitumen with lighter oils, obtaining diluted bitumen, or dilbit, which can flow in a pipeline.
The Committee noted that a federal investigation into the famous 2010 pipeline spill in Marshall, Michigan, which released some 20,000 barrels of dilbit into the nearby Kalamazoo River, “did not report that specific properties of the products transported through the pipeline at the time of the event or in the past had caused or contributed to the pipeline damage.” The environmental disaster that ensued led some environmentalists to oppose piping dilbit in the belief that it is less safe.
The Committee also deemed the findings of an oft-quoted 1993 study on California’s pipelines irrelevant to the dilbit question. Some green groups say the 20-year old research shows that California’s heavy crude, which is in many ways similar to dilbit, is likely to cause pipeline ruptures when flowing at higher temperatures. But most of the incidents recorded in the California study happened to pipelines built before 1950, the Dilbit Committee noted, which suggests that antiquated technology, rather than what was being transported, was the likely cause of the breakdowns.
The dilbit report, which was authored by independent experts and not the oil industry, should quash some of the charges against Alberta’s crude once and for all. It’s a limited victory, though, for two reasons. First, Obama has now clearly indicated than the focus of his attention is the question of emissions from Keystone rather than spills. Second, as the Committee itself noted, the dilbit report answers only half of the spills question, and possibly the less important one.
The study, in fact, does not address the issue of whether a dilbit spill, once it has happened, has more serious consequences than any other oil spill. The Environmental Protection Agency says the Michigan incident showed that, unlike other types of crude, bitumen can sink in water—the Kalamazoo will have to be dredged to contain damage—and might emit dangerous levels of benzene, a carcinogenic substance, when it breaks out. EPA cited these concerns in an official critique to the State Department’s latest draft environmental assessment on Keystone.
Still, the finding that dilbit behaves like any other crude while it’s inside a pipeline matters. Had the Committee found otherwise, it would have likely considerably delaying the already drawn-out Keystone approval process. The report might not bring Canada much closer to a presidential go-ahead, but it certainly took a rock out of Ottawa’s shoe.
Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to CanadianBusiness.com, where she covers the U.S. economy. Follow her on Twitter: @ealini.