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Bitumen, or 'dirty oil' carries transportation risks

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 30th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Bitumen, commonly referred to as "dirty oil," has many concerned over its environmental impact on the petrochemical industry. Far more corrosive than regular crude oil, bitumen poses a hazard to traditional oil pipelines.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The United States currently imports over half a million barrels a day of bitumen from Canada's oil sands region. The amount of bitumen transported to the U.S. is set to grow to over 1.5 million barrels, nearly 10 percent of the country's current consumption. Imports are set to triple over the next decade, raising concerns over the environmental impact of extracting it and whether pipelines can safely transport this Canadian oil.

A heavy, tar-like oil, bitumen needs to be heavily processed in order to be turned into lighter, easier to refine, crude oil. As the oil is so thick, in order to make it more fluid and easier to move by pipeline, bitumen gets diluted with natural gas liquids.

The oil industry maintains that bitumen is safe, but the danger of transporting it is one of the reasons there is so much opposition to the Keystone pipeline expansion.

"We've got all this unconventional crude, and we're completely unprepared for it," Michael Marx, a senior campaign director at the Sierra Club says, adding that bitumen is "definitely more dangerous" than regular oil.

Marx says bitumen is not only more abrasive than traditional crude; it's 15 to 20 times more acidic.

The Sierra Club put out a report demonstrating that pipelines in Alberta, where bitumen is commonly transported, had 16 times the number of leaks than pipelines in the United States, which generally don't carry it.

When bitumen does leak, environmentalists say it's harder to clean up, because unlike regular oil, they say it's heavier than water, meaning it will sink to the bottom of lakes, rivers or bays.

"We just don't have the technical sophistication to vacuum oil off the bottom of a river," he said.

Bitumen currently comes into this country via a pipeline running from Alberta to Wisconsin and in the original Keystone pipeline that terminates in Illinois.

Canada says it is planning on vastly increasing the amount of oil and bitumen that it gets out of its oil sands region. To get that oil out, more infrastructures needs to be built.

Some ideas call for pipelines to Canada's West Coast, to the Atlantic Coast through New England, and an expansion of rail lines. However, all of these routes would pass through sensitive ecological areas.

Canada's oil industry vehemently rejects the "dirty oil" moniker, saying it is more energy and water intensive than some forms of light crude, but not more so than many of the other heavy oils used in the Untied States from places like Mexico, Venezuela or California.

The pipeline industry says transporting bitumen isn't any more dangerous than transporting regular crude, pointing to other studies that show it's not any more abrasive or corrosive to pipelines.

The Alberta-to-U.S. bitumen pipeline leak comparison is not accurate, they claim, because Alberta uses a different metric to measure pipeline leaks.

More importantly, the industry says the pipeline companies would not agree to carry this stuff if it really was destroying their systems.

"No pipeline operator would want to spend billions of dollars to transport something their pipeline can't handle," Andy Black, president of the U.S.-based Association of Oil Pipe Lines says.

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