The Dilbit Question

What is Enbridge planning to put in its pipeline between Edmonton and Kitimat?

By now everyone knows that Enbridge Inc. wants to build a l,l70 km pipeline between Edmonton and Kitimat to carry Tar Sands Bitumen. What is not commonly known is that the sludge running through those pipes is not simply bitumen but a substance called “dilbit.” What, then, is dilbit?

Dilbit is short for “diluted bitumen.” Bitumen alone – at room temperature the consistency of peanut butter – is too dense for transport, and requires dilution. The “diluent” is natural gas, or refined naphtha and synthetic crude oil. The mixture is 70 per cent bitumen and 30 per cent diluent. The plan calls for a double pipeline, a 36-inch line for petroleum flowing west and a 20-inch line for diluent (often called “condensate”) flowing east.

So this is not conventional crude that industry has used for decades. This stuff is 70 times thicker than conventional crude, with acid concentrations up to 20 times higher, with 10 times the sulpher content, containing abrasive substances like quartz, pyrite, silicates that cause pipes to heat up. Leaks are estimated at 16 times more likely.

Most of us have heard of Enbridge’s million-gallon spill into the Kalamazoo River (Michigan) in 2010. The US’s National Transportation Safety Board issued a scathing report on that event, citing the lack of adequate federal legislation and ill-preparedness on the part of Enbridge. David Sassoon of InsideClimate News wrote an informative article on the spill, from which I’ve chosen to quote selected passages.

“The accident,” he reports, “underscored how different dilbit is from conventional oil. After the dilbit gushed into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy bitumen sank to the river bottom, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated, creating a foul smell that lingered for days. People reported headaches, dizziness and nausea. No one could say with certainty what they should do.”

“The N.T.S.B.’s investigation of the Michigan spill identified ‘a complete breakdown of safety’ at Enbridge, the pipeline’s operator. It also revealed that pipeline rules are weakly enforced. One telling fact: Enbridge discovered defects in the area where the pipeline eventually ruptured as early as 2005, and reported them to regulators. Yet the company was able to delay making repairs without breaking any rules.”

“The N.T.S.B. also found that Enbridge’s leak detection system did not work as advertised. The company had said that its sensors could spot a leak and shut down in less than 10 minutes. TransCanada, the company that is building the Keystone XL, makes similar claims. Yet it took operators in Enbridge’s Canadian control room 17 hours to realize their pipeline had torn open. Sensors triggered 16 alarms but operators continued to pump dilbit into the line, believing the problem was an air bubble, until someone in Michigan saw oil on the ground and called Enbridge’s emergency line.”

“The leak-detection problem is industry-wide. Oil spill data maintained by federal regulators show that over the last 10 years, advanced leak detection systems identified only one out of every 20 reported pipeline leaks. Members of the public detected and reported leaks at four times that rate.”

The Polaris Institute calculated 804 spills between 1999 and 2010. Altogether Enbridge has spilled half as much oil as the Exxon Valdez incident.

An N.T.S.B. chairwoman  compared Enbridge employees to “Keystone Kops” in their mismanagement of the Michigan dilbit disaster, and we’ve no reason to believe that Canada is any better prepared than the US to handle a major spill. Simply in monetary terms, the cost of clean up is out of sight: $2,000 a barrel for conventional crude, $29,000 for dilbit. (All the figures in this essay are estimates, may be inaccurate, yet serve to illustrate the case.) After two years and an $800 million expenditure, the clean up in Michigan continues.

The proposed lines between Edmonton and Kitimat would carry their deadly carcinogens over 773 watercourses, to be transported by ship through 230 km of the narrow, stormy Douglas Channel. The BC and federal governments – heedless and mesmerized by profits – are pressuring us to accept the Gateway Project as a necessity.

Wiser citizens know better.

And while we focus our attention on the dangers of dilbit, let us not forget the root cause of this monstrous threat to our natural paradise: The Tar Sands. The building of the Enbridge pipelines would increase the growth of the Tar Sands by yet another third.

Think about it.

For more information, see Internet: “Dilbit” – Wikipedia. “The Dilbit Silence” – Ray Grigg

Van Andruss

Moha, B.C.