Environmentalists: Canada-Gulf oil pipeline should be delayed

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Environmental groups said Wednesday that a 1,700-mile oil pipeline planned between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico posed safety risks and should be delayed.

They said the Canadian crude oil intended for the $7 billion pipeline was a thick, corrosive and toxic blend that required high pressures and temperatures to move it, raising the risk of leaks and spills, according to a new report.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council international program and a report co-author, said the effect of the fast-moving oil was like "sand-blasting" the interior of the pipeline.

The report said the pipeline system in Alberta, Canada, where the oil is obtained, had 16 times as many spills due to internal corrosion as pipeline systems in the U.S. did.

But an independent government oversight agency in Alberta said the report used inaccurate information and that its conclusions were flawed.

Reacting to the report, Canada's Energy Resources Conservation Board said in a statement: "Analysis of pipeline failure statistics in Alberta has not identified any significant differences in failure frequency between pipelines handling conventional crude versus pipelines carrying" the thicker Canadian crude oil.

The environmental groups, however, said that concerns over the oil weren't limited solely to the proposed Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

As Canada becomes a bigger exporter of oil across the border, the report said that before approving the pipeline, the U.S. should ensure that safety regulations provided adequate oversight for existing pipelines that might carry the thicker Canadian crude in the future but weren't designed to handle it.

"Their corrosive products will take a greater and greater toll on our pipelines, and that creates a huge safety risk we are not prepared for yet," Casey-Lefkowitz said. "It is frightening to see how little research has been done on this issue."

The National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Pipeline Safety Trust also were involved in the report.

The new pipeline, which would be built by Alberta-based TransCanada, would be designed to carry as much as 900,000 barrels of oil per day. The company built a section through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri as part of an earlier pipeline from Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Illinois.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will decide whether the project proceeds, since it involves cross-border permits. Her department is studying the environmental impact.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said in an e-mail that his company's pipeline was safe.

"We are building the newest pipeline in North America that is monitored 24 hours per day, 365 days per year," he said. "We use satellite technology that sends data every five seconds from 16,000 data points to our monitoring center. We have a world-class control center that has both global and local leak-detection systems that allows us to promptly detect a leak of any size."

The environmentalists' report said that the oil, extracted from oil sands in western Canada, was shipped across the border as a tarry substance diluted with a liquefied form of natural gas.

It contains higher concentrations of acid, sulfur and chloride salts, which can lead to stress corrosion, the report said, as well as "significantly higher quantities of abrasive quartz sand particles than conventional crude."

Critics worry about the potential for environmental damage should a spill occur.

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