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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Tanker routes from the Trans Mountain terminus.

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.

So this is how it felt when the oil started flowing on the Persian Gulf. This century’s successor to the 20th century’s great energy game is starting to unfold around us. On one side, the inland West is bursting with particularly filthy fossil fuels: Montana and Wyoming coal, North Dakota oil, the vast reserves (third-largest in the world) of Alberta’s tar sands (or, as they say there, “oilsands”). On the other side, China and Asia’s other new industrial powerhouses, thirsty for fuel and paying a hefty premium. And in between, the monkey in the middle, the rich, fragile inland seas of Washington and British Columbia, over which the stuff must travel to reach those premium markets.

Two projects have filled the headlines and drawn the protests: the campaign to run mile-long coal trains over the mountains, along Seattle’s waterfront and up the slippery shores of Puget Sound for shipment to Asia. And the Canadian firm Enbridge’s effort to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would pump tar-sand oil from Edmonton, across the northern-BC vastness, to Kitimat and, eventually, to fuel-thirsty Asia.

But under the cover of those two, a third transport project is taking shape, to little fanfare or alarm on this side of the border, that could affect Washington’s waters more than the others. Kinder Morgan, another pipeline giant that, unlike Calgary-based Enbridge, is based in Houston, Texas, wants to “twin” the 60-year-old Trans Mountain Pipeline that it operates between Edmonton and Burnaby, British Columbia, just across narrow Burrard Inlet from Vancouver.

The new $4-billion “twin” line will in fact be a partly new route: Trans Mountain engineering chief Jim Davies says the company will have to open up new right of way for about a tenth of the 1,150-kilometer line, where development has crowded too close to the current line to allow more construction. The new twin would also be the buster of the litter: Last year Kinder Morgan announced it would double its Trans Mountain capacity from the current 300,000 barrels a day to 600,000, then eventually settled on 750,000. It recently announced that demand was so strong it will triple capacity, to 890,000 barrels a day.

That translates to a figure of more acute concern to residents of the San Juan Islands, Olympic Peninsula, and other shores en route: Kinder Morgan projects that this will raise the number of oil tankers sailing to and from Burnaby via the Georgia, Haro and Juan de Fuca straits from five a month to 25. Other tankers carry crude and refined oil products from the refineries at Washington's Cherry Point and Anacortes and Cherry Point, which receive crude from a spur off the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Most of what they’ll carry won’t be ordinary crude. It will be a more complex, less understood concoction commonly known by what sounds like a cartoon character’s digital avatar: dilbit, short for “diluted bitumen.” Bitumen is the sticky, biologically degraded petroleum that gets steamed and pumped, at considerable expenditure of water, energy and boreal forest, out of the vast sand basins north and west of Edmonton. It’s too thick to pump whole, so it is diluted, about seven parts to three, with lighter oils. Or, more commonly now that natural gas is so cheap, with gas condensates. In a timely twist on the coals-to-Newcastle theme, Kinder Morgan will reverse the flow in a gas pipeline that now runs from Alberta to Texas to supply this diluting agent.

Just what impacts and risks this will entail is a subject of even more dispute than your usual high-stakes environmental debate. At times Trans Mountain’s industry and government promoters (including the Harper administration) and its critics (environmental and watchdog groups, First Nations and local governments in British Columbia) seem to be talking about substances as different as olive oil and Portland cement.

Pipeline opponents argue that even diluted, bitumen is too troublesome, both inside the pipes and out, to risk transporting it. Their case turns not just on dilbit’s density, but on its levels of sulfur, acidity, abrasive particles and friction-generated heat, all of which may speed corrosion in pipelines or tanker hulls.

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.

As at Burnaby Inlet, the pipeline operators didn’t heed initial warning alarms, nor calls from fume-shocked residents — for 17 hours. An estimated 840,000-plus gallons of dilbit spilled into a marsh and drained into a tributary creek and, a few days later, the Kalamazoo River. In the water, the heavy bitumen and light diluents separated and, respectively, sank and evaporated. The result is a cleanup nightmare from which the Michigan waterways and their human neighbors still haven’t recovered; $700 million later, Enbridge and various agencies still haven’t gotten the stuff off the bottom.

Alarming as the Michigan spill was, a tanker spill in Haro Strait, with its fast currents, ever-busier vessel traffic, and rich biota, could be much bigger and nastier. But Kinder Morgan can simply say “not our problem” to crossborder marine concerns; once the oil leaves its tanks, it’s the shipper’s responsibility. The U.S. government, Washington state and island and peninsula counties have no say over the permitting or construction of the pipeline.

Kinder Morgan has spent the fall and winter conducting "information sessions" (described by critics as “focus groups,” “dog and pony shows” and “opposition research") in 31 Canadian communities along the pipeline and tanker routes. It’s declined to visit their counterparts across the international border: “We need to get through [the B.C. tour] before we’re sure what’s next,” explains Davies.

State and federal authorities here are scrambling to figure that out — and to determine whether their spill prevention and cleanup resources could come anywhere near handling a quintupling of Canadian tanker shipments. Sen. Maria Cantwell attached a provision to the Coast Guard funding reauthorization bill passed last month that directs the Coasties to perform risk and cost-benefit analyses of the tar-sand oil shipments, a comparison of pertinent U.S. and Canadian regulations, and recommendations for preventing and cleaning spills. It’s due in June, at the same time as the National Academy study of dilbit and pipeline corrosion.

“Everybody is waiting for the NAS study,” says Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham-based Pipeline Safety Trust, a national watchdog group founded in the wake of a deadly gasoline pipeline explosion there in 1999. “But some even question the group that got appointed to do that — three or four are current or former industry members.” Thomas Menzies, the NAS panel’s staff director, confirms that two of its 12 members are indeed former pipeline operators, for a reason: “Operational experience is essential to fulfilling the charge.”

Federal regulators do seem to have a lot of catching up to do. So far they’re been tiptoeing around dilbit questions: The National Transportation Safety Board’s review of the Michigan spill scourges Enbridge for various safety, maintenance, and response shortcomings, recommends corrections — and does not consider dilbit as a factor in the debacle. “I met with PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] regulators,” recounts Weimer. “I thought they’d know all the answers to these [dilbit] questions. But they didn’t.”

There’s one worrisome question that no one other than veteran marine advocate Fred Felleman even seems to be asking: Will this surge of new tar-sand oil be lightered — transferred — onto larger tankers for the Pacific crossing, and what new spill hazards would such transfers present?

Under the federal Magnuson Act, no tankers larger than 125,000 tons deadweight can ply the straits east of Port Angeles. In the past, shippers would park supertankers there and lighter onto them. That practice is still perfectly legal but dormant.

When Felleman raises the prospect of it reviving, he gets blank stares. But the economics suggest it’s not so farfetched. The 120,000-ton Aframax-class tankers that currently take Burnaby’s oil are mainly used on routes involving tight turns and moderate transits, as in the Mediterranean. They’re fine for the run to California, where 90 percent of current shipments from Burnaby currently go. And Trans Mountain’s Davies says they’re a “viable” vehicle for reaching high-priced Asian markets. But they’re hardly the most cost-effective one, especially since the shallow passage at Burnaby means even Aframax tankers can’t fill up completely there.

Lightering at Port Angeles would present one more chance for something to go wrong, notes Felleman — perhaps disastrously, what with the high pressure needed to pump heavy crudes such as dilbit.

Whatever findings emerge, both sides in the bitumen battle are likely to keep fighting. The stakes are too high to quit. 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.

Canada’s business and government establishments likewise see bitumen exports as a make-or-break business. 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. And it’s a diminishing economic prospect as more U.S. fuel resources also come on line. The domestic price for the benchmark U.S. crude West Texas Intermediate currently lags the international price for Brent crude by about 16 percent; the gap between Brent and Western Canadian Select crude is twice that. Lack of access to overseas oil markets costs Canada an estimated $13 billion a year.

Like Russia seeking a warmwater port, the Canadian energy industry is looking in several directions. President Obama is set to weigh in again on the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would pump Albertan oil to Louisiana and which his administration blocked last year. Northern Gateway looks ever more doubtful, not just because of Enbridge’s knack for making enemies but because it must cross unabrogated First Nations lands whose holders have already announced their opposition. Trans Mountain also has anxious First Nation neighbors, the Tsleil-Wauthuth on Burrard Inlet, who oppose its expansion. But they don’t control the corridor, though it terminates in their traditional homeland.

Some U.S. critics suggest that if Canada’s so eager to get its oil to sea, it should build a pipeline to its own Atlantic ports, where it currently imports foreign oil. But that’s a much longer, costlier transit, with many more local interests to placate or overcome.

All of this makes the Trans Mountain expansion a more attractive, or alarming, prospect, and sets the stage for a showdown on Burrard Inlet.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.