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Josh Mogerman’s Blog

Meet "DilBit": A new word for your troubled oil vocabulary

Josh Mogerman

Posted February 17, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil

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Kalamazoo River Spill photo by Sierra Club Michigan

Oh no. Another oil word? We seem to add them to our vernacular after something bad happens… Had you heard of “dispersants,” “drilling mud” or “COREXIT” before the Gulf spill? Nope. New oil words spell trouble.

I’ve been trying to get folks to understand the difference between tar sands oil and other petroleums for a while. Yup, that bottom of the barrel, high-carbon, high-sulfur, low-grade pseudo petroleum strip-mined or steamed out of the sandy ground in Canada is a growing disaster on both sides of the border.

And now you are telling me I have to get acquainted with “diluted bitumen?” Really?

Really. Because the new NRDC/Pipeline Safety Trust/NWF/Sierra Club report Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks makes it abundantly clear that this is even nastier stuff coming down our pipelines which seems destined to be ingrained into our vernacular too.

A quick explanation. Not to get all technical, but traditionally, tar sands oil has gone through a partial refining process called “upgrading” that turns the stuff into something resembling more typical oil products before it got sent south of the border into the States. But the oil boom is back on in Alberta and the Oilies have run out of upgrading capacity. So rather than invest in more, they are taking the raw stuff, mixing it with liquefied natural gas and cramming it down our pipeline network. That is problematic since our pipelines are aging and not designed to carry this more abrasive, acidic, corrosive gunk that requires heat and high pressure just to get it to slide down the lines. Look at Alberta’s pipeline system and you get an indication of the problem: their pipes are newer but still suffer 16X as many corrosion-related spills as we do in the U.S. As a growing percentage of our oil imports come in the form of diluted bitumen, we can expect an uptick in events here in the U.S. too---like the Lakehead system which burst twice last summer, dumping nearly a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan (clean up continues after six months and officials now expect a portion of the waterway to be closed through the summer while they try to get the toxic goop up off the river bottom) and in suburban Chicago a couple weeks later.

The report is eye opening. Read it to find out about the added risks for explosion. The harder to detect nature of diluted bitumen spills (they didn’t realize it was a spill in Michigan until gunk had been flowing into the Kalamazoo for 12 hours). The markedly increased sand and silica content that apparently acts like an internal pipeline sandblaster. But despite all that, perhaps the most shocking part of the report is a description of the regulations around this stuff. There are none…despite being very different from other petroleums, diluted bitumen, with all its corrosive elements and public safety threats, hasn’t been studied particularly deeply and as a result is dealt with like any other oil (there are bills in Congress that could help to bring change to this issue).

If you don’t have time to read the report, you can just wait until diluted bitumen comes to a pipeline near you… It’ll be in your vernacular soon.

 

Kalamazoo River Oil Spill image by Sierra Club via Flickr

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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