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Photo Courtesy: thegreatlakesdilbitdefenders.com

Keystone controversy: Is Canadian dilbit the “dirtiest” oil out there?

As the vote to pass the Keystone XL Pipeline headed to the Senate floor yesterday, researchers with California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard have released new data on the ‘cleanliness’ of North America’s ‘dirty’ oil, and the results may surprise you.

Before I unveil the results of the study, let’s backtrack ever-so-slightly and bring back an issue relevant to the findings of this study that happened four years ago.

On July 26, 2010, the town of Marshall, Mich. was victim to one of the worst environmental disasters the United States had seen in years, yet it is rarely talked about. When the Kalamazoo River was blackened by more than one million gallons of Canadian dilbit—or, diluted bitumen—via an Enbridge Pipeline, the perceived notion was harmful than conventional crude oil. That is because dilbit, if leaked into water, is harder to remove than the typical light crude oil. While most conventional oils float on water, much of the dilbit that leaked into the Kalamazoo River sank beneath the surface, and oil beneath the surface is significantly harder to clean up than floating oil. In fact, river cleanup efforts are still being done to this day, and have cost over $1 billion dollars. Here is a map of the current state of the Kalamazoo River, showing two sections of the river still being closed off due to health hazards caused from the spill:

Photo Courtesy: EPA

Photo Courtesy: EPA

In 2013, Canada’s federal government released a study on the behavior of diluted bitumen (dilbit) that demonstrates the product floats in salt water. The study also determined whether dilbit would float on salt water and whether it would continue to float as it is impacted by environmental exposure. The study found the following results:

  • Like conventional crude oil, both diluted bitumen products floated on saltwater (free of sediment) even after evaporation, exposure to light and mixing with water.
  • Under conditions simulating breaking waves, where chemical dispersants have proven effective with conventional crude oils, a commercial chemical dispersant had quite limited effectiveness in dispersing dilbit.
  • Application of fine sediments to floating dilbit was not effective in helping to disperse the products.
  • The two diluted bitumen products display some of the same behavior as conventional petroleum products (i.e. fuel oils and conventional crude oils), but also significant differences, notably for the rate and extent of evaporation.
  • When fine sediment was suspended in the saltwater, with the addition of high-energy waves, this resulted in some dibit sinking or being dispersed.

The study mentioned above is based on dilbit spilling into saltwater, but what about freshwater? According to conclusions in a report by environmental chemist Jeff Short, some dilbit products will sink in fresh and brackish marine waters in less than 26 hours following a tanker spill or accident at a marine terminal.

Conclusions can be made in both cases that dilbit does indeed sink, no matter if it is in saltwater or freshwater, but the key with any dilbit still is going to have to be timing. The 26-hour window doesn’t allow much time for cleanup before the dilbit begins to sink, and depending upon the severity of the spill, crews may not even begin to start cleaning the water before it’s already too late. For example, it took Michigan utility employees 18 hours before they responded to the Kalamazoo River spill. The cause of the spill was a rupture in the pipe after pressure was increased from 50 to 200 psi. Also contributing to the rupture was a deep crack in the pipeline, which Enbridge claimed they knew existed, but did nothing about it. The crack in the pipeline was likely caused by years of corrosion, which—at the time—had dilbit skeptics in a situation where they felt the evidence kept stacking up against this “dirty” form of oil.

In 2012, the Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions group conducted a study about the comparison of the corrosivity of dilbit and conventional crude. The findings of the study were interesting, just like the study done by California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The study examined a list of 10 concerns and claims against pipeline transportation of dilbit. One of the claims is that dilbit contains more sulfur and higher corrosive acid concentrations than conventional crude. Another concern asserted that dilbit has a higher concentration of chloride salts and has more abrasive sand particles, which could erode the pipelines it’s being transported in. The study tested these myth’s, if you will, and came to the conclusion that after analyzing all of the data results showed that in the context of pipeline transportation, characteristics of dilbit are not unique and are comparable to conventional crude oils. Also, it concluded that the comparison of equivalent crude oil transportation systems shows no evidence that dilbit causes more failures or internal corrosion than conventional crudes.

Also, in 2013, the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association released its study on dilbit corrosivity in comparison with conventional crudes. It studied the implications dilbit may have on pipeline integrity management. Conclusions of the study suggest that dilbit, in a crude oil transmission pipeline environment, is no more corrosive than comparable heavy sour crudes and in many cases may be less corrosive.

So, why the bad rap, dilbit? After all, you aren’t even close to being the ‘dirtiest’ form of crude in North America. That title belongs to a certain crude coming out of California, negatively affecting the United States in an entirely different way: emissions.

Now, getting back to the study released by the California Low Carbon suggests that the ‘dirtiest’ oil in North America is not produced in Canada at all, but instead, it is produced just outside Los Angeles. Yes, the “City of Angels.” The Placerita oil field outside of L.A. generates about twice the level of upstream emissions as Canadian oilsands production. There are 13 oil fields in California that generate a higher level of upstream greenhouse gas emissions than Canadian dilbit blends. Crude oil from Alaska’s North Slope, which makes up about 12 percent of California’s total crude slate, is actually “dirtier” than the Canadian dilbit known as “Access Western Blend.”

But what does it all mean?

From the perspective of the United States, the new data should put to rest President Obama’s concerns about the impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline on climate change and the level of U.S. and global GHG emissions. In particular, California has confirmed the State Department’s analysis that the foreign crudes that would feed Gulf Coast refineries in the absence of Canadian bitumen generate comparable, and in some cases higher, carbon emissions. According to Peter Burn, a recent senior advisor in the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Directorate, approximately 80 percent of the emissions attributable to a barrel of oil occur during the downstream combustion of refined fuel in a vehicle, not during the upstream production of crude oil. These downstream emissions occur in equal amounts whether the fuel was made from light or heavy oil. Keystone or no Keystone, perhaps this should be the more important topic of discussion in the days ahead.


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