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Northwest energy whack-a-mole: Another pipeline rears its head

As the Northern Gateway scheme to ship Alberta's tar-sand oil to Asia grows shaky, the battle shifts to another pipeline plan that would send it out past Washington's fragile waters.

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Kinder Morgan and various authorities contend that dilbit’s acidity is no problem. Studies by Canada’s CanmetENERGY agency found that “corrosion rates were very low” in pipelines transporting dilbit, “and did not correlate with [total acid numbers]." “We’ve transported bitumen in pipe for about 30 years,” says Trans America engineer Mike Davies, “and haven’t experienced any integrity issues. It’s not corrosive and not abrasive, and the difference in acidity is not significant.”

But that difference is certainly substantial. According to one industry tabulation, dilbit is five-plus times as acidic as benchmark Mexican Maya crude. It’s no more viscous than heavy, sour Canadian conventional crudes, but it's on average about twice as acidic and a third more sulfurous. Another way of looking at it: the share of acid by weight in dilbit is a fifth to half that in commercial vinegar, a liquid customarily deemed too corrosive to store in metal.

Heat is the other big question in piping dilbit, and it’s also a controversial one. Higher heat amplifies liquids’ corrosiveness; according to an industry rule of thumb the corrosion rate doubles with each additional 10 degrees Celsius. All oil gets warmed by friction as it pushes down a pipe; the question is how much.

Tar sands opponents contend that dilbit gets much hotter than conventional crude, thanks to more abrasive grit and higher pressures needed to move it. Not so, Kinder Morgan once again insists: “Dilbit products shipped in our pipeline do not get warmer than conventional crude,” Davies declares. “We monitor temperatures within the pipeline and there is little difference between crude types. Overall temperatures do vary seasonally. In winter temperatures are typically 10 C or less, and in summer they are typically 20 C or less. There is no need to undertake any cooling measures.”

Scientific data on pipeline friction seems to be skimpy. It’s one of the questions being examined by a panel of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences deputed to determine the risks of pipeline damage from dilbit.

The pipeline industry meanwhile prides itself on not suffering any “releases of oil caused by internal corrosion from pipelines carrying dilbit” for the 10 years leading up to mid-2012. But it’s had ample mishaps of other sorts, including several on the Trans Mountain line.

In 2007 a construction backhoe broke a pipe at the Burnaby depot, sending oil pouring into Burrard Inlet and forcing the evacuation of some 50 homes. In January 2011 Trans Mountain operators ignored warning alarms for a reported three-and-a-half hours while some 25,000 gallons of oil spilled through a failed gasket at its Sumas tank farm. Canada’s National Energy Board scored Kinder Morgan for many operational failings. And last month at Vancouver (though not at Kinder Morgan’s facility) a ship crashed into Westshore Terminals, North America’s largest coal port, spilling a heap of coal and dust into the fish-rich Fraser Delta. At least it wasn’t oil, terminal officials said, trying to look on the bright side. That would be harder to clean up.

Even harder if it were dilbit. The problem lies partly in bitumen’s stickiness — in air, it dries like varnish on rocks and other surfaces — and partly in its weight. Conventional crude is lighter than water; it mostly floats to the surface, where it can evaporate and be skimmed. Straight bitumen is denser; it sinks to the bottom and penetrates sediments and substrates. Diluted bitumen has about the same density as water, which makes it hang in the water column.

The industry maintains that dilbit is so thoroughly homogenized, the bitumen and diluents can’t separate. That may be true when it's contained, but it didn’t hold in July 2010 when an Enbridge pipe carrying dilbit ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, causing the costliest pipeline spill in U.S. history.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Another important and informative story by Scigliano, but this paragraph seemed to get mangled in the editing process:

"Other tankers carry crude and refined oil products from the refineries at Washington's Cherry Point and Anacortes and Cherry Point, which are receive their crude from a spur off the Trans Mountain pipeline.)"

Yes it is true that Washington's 4 north Sound refineries are attached to the Alberta oil fields by pipeline. Several of them are also beginning to receive shale gas via rail. However, they typically refine the crude and export the refined product but receive far more crude via tanker than pipeline or rail. It's also important to know that now that tankers are double hulled they are no longer required to have 2 tug escorts.. The only reason they have escorts at all is due to a state law requiring a single tug on double hull tankers.

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

This is the crux of the matter IMO:

"The pipeline and tanker issues are real, but to environmentalists they’re also surrogates for a much bigger threat: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the outsized contribution that Canada’s vast, dirty, inefficient oilsand resources can make to them. The outspoken NASA atmospheric scientist and climate campaigner James Hansen has famously predicted that if the tar sands get exploited, it’s “game over” for arresting global warming."

As long as profit is the only consideration instead of the health and survival of life on this planet these kinds of things will continue to be pushed. Those of us who care about life need to push back.

nwcitizen

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Hard to take this article seriously when it has more spelling, grammar and title errors than a 3rd grade book report. Otherwise, interesting stuff.

Kidder Morgan? Which are receive? Back in the day, those errors would get a reporter fired.

JJones

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

And now they get corrected. Thanks for pointing out those two typos.

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Isn't Keystone XL a TransCanada project, not Kinder Morgan?

"Keystone XL Pipeline (another Kinder Morgan project)"

JJones

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Right. Thanks again.

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

"As long as those exports remain landlocked, Canada remains a captive supplier to the United States. That’s what candidate Mitt Romney hinted at when he defined the “energy independence” he promised as relying on “North American” fuels...."

Today's WSJ: "Key to Oil: Location, Location, Location" (google in quotes if a non-subcriber) makes clear that the dynamics never hold still waiting for politics to catch up. Not sure if the following is true or not, but would explain the planned increased shipments to and from the Wa. refinery:
" Because refined products can be freely exported from the U.S., they command higher global prices relative to domestic crude oil, which can't." "Other winners are midcontinent refiners such as HollyFrontier HFC +1.52% . They can process cheaper, relatively local oil and then sell the refined products." {Sentence order reversed in original.)

afreeman

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

"Like Russia seeking a warmwater port, the Canadian energy industry is looking in several directions."

If these folks are patient, in due time they can have a warm water port wherever they want. Also, since seas are just beginning an ice melt induced rise that could increase tidal levels 25 feet or so, waiting a few years might allow shorelines to stabilize at their new boundaries. This could avoid the additional costs of having to periodically re-engineer port facilities.

Also, simply providing a conduit between the producer (Canada) and the consumer (China) is often a poor bargain. Whether its a pipeline or oil tankers, the conduit is paid little for its services but takes on the full risk of a catastrophic environmental accident. If indeed the US is fated to become a Third World resource-dependent economy, it still might want to consider being selective about its partnerships.

woofer

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Imagining that SLR (sea level rise) is going to stop after some amount of ice melt allowing us to rebuild the same mess of industrial infrastructure up slope is a fantasy. Assuming GHG emissions at current rates, projections are for Greenland and WAIS (West Antarctica) to go first, but it takes a while. Decades. Centuries. And then, if we've really screwed up the system, EAIS goes as well, taking even longer.

If Earth gets so warm as to eliminate all or even most of the GIS and EAIS, we are really and truly unlikely to have much of a civilization anywhere on the planet. Because aside from SLR, the ocean could be pretty dead from acidification and we'll be lucky to be able to breath without phytoplankton producing half the global oxygen.

There's much reporting on the science underlying these delightful prospects if you look. Here's one recent article on the ice melt piece: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=14300

louploup

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 6:20 p.m. Inappropriate

There are several choices. The first is shut down all the seaports on Puget Sound in Washington State. This would be my choice. Just plain outlaw all shipping in our fragile waters. Who cares about imports or exports? Especially if they destroy our environment.

All the other choices are bad, terrible even. It's not like the jobs these options provide are long lasting. As soon as the gas, oil, and coal run out those jobs disappear and we are left with the mess. Not much of a bargain.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 3:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The United States should prohibit export of raw hydrocarbon, or refined hydrocarbon products.
I guess Canada could use its own ports to export, and that is what Canada needs to be made to do.
That means no export of anything from the Keystone xl pipeline.

There should be no lightering of hydrocarbons for export at Port Angeles, or anywhere else in the United States.

If corporations are going to use the BC ports, we need to know who every individual in the control groups of the corporations are. We cannot stop Canada from allowing the export from BC; but we can know who to go after individually if a disaster ever occurred. I do not mean fine the corporation; I mean go after each control group member individually, and make every day of the rest of their lives a living hell.

Also, Where is Washington State Government on this. We have a new Governor, who will not speak about the China Coal Ports, and there seems to be nothing happening with state government about the issue in this article. State Government needs to start protecting Washington State from Multi-national, and foreign corporations.

jhande

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