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Michigan Oil Spill Was Indeed Tar Sands: Enbridge thinks it's better if you don't know

Josh Mogerman

Posted August 12, 2010

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Kalamazoo Spill photo by Sierra Club via Flickr

When is oil from the tar sands not from the tar sands? Well, apparently when industry CEOs, afraid of blow back from yet another environmental disaster associated with what has been termed as “the world’s dirtiest oil,” say so. It’s not a hypothetical question. It’s happening right now in Michigan associated with the spill of a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Two different reporters caught Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel trying to be cute with his language in describing the oil his company’s pipeline dumped into the waterway. And today, he had to come clean (which is an odd word to associate with tar sands).

While industry semantics have always been difficult and seem to intentionally obscure, this is not an issue of “oil sands” vs. “tar sands.” In the Kalamazoo River spill, there has been a denial of bitumen---the stuff strip-mined and steamed (they call it “in-situ” or SAGD---literally melting the deposits in the ground) out of Alberta at an increasingly breakneck speed to create the biggest industrial project on the planet and arguably the biggest environmental disaster. Why does it matter, isn’t oil oil? No. Tar sands oil is fundamentally different in that it produces up to three times the carbon emissions of typical petroleums in production (and even by the most conservative estimates, rates poorly against the world's dirtiest oils). And for the folks on the banks of Kalamazoo River it is important to know that the stuff is much more laden with heavy metals, sulfur and other pollutants than typical oil products. Because of this, and the massive scale of environmental degradation in Canada, the tar sands oil industry has gotten a green black eye and are extremely sensitive about their (ugly) environmental reputation.

That sensitivity has become clear in Michigan where Kari Lydersen, covering the spill for OnEarth, and Eartha Melzer, covering it for Michigan Messenger, both asked Daniel directly if the oil spilled had any connection to Canada’s tar sands. In both cases, he said flatly, no. And in both cases, he later hedged a bit---Melzer and my colleague Ann Alexander demolish his points in the Michigan Messenger article:

In a conference call with reporters last week Daniels emphasized that the company’s Cold Lake Crude is extracted by steam distillation rather than mining, though he acknowledged that the resulting product is so thick that it must be diluted by a third with light crude in order to be pumped through pipelines.

According to the U.S. Dept. Of Energy 95 percent of Canadian oil reserves are in the tar sands. The Michigan oil spill comes as the Canadian oil industry is lobbying for approval of an immense new pipeline to carry tar sand crude to the U.S.

Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Cold Lake Crude is definitely from tar sand.

“Whatever else they want to say about it,” she said, “if it is coming from Cold Lake and they got it out from in situ, that is just what it is.”

“There are two ways to get tar sands,” she said. “One is to strip off forests and mine. When crude is too deep to strip mine out they use ‘in situ’ — they drill down and extract the stuff [with steam]...”

Ultimately, Daniel could not continue to snow the folks who were paying attention. Just as I was going to post, Melzer’s colleague Todd Heywood put out this juicy bit from a conversation with Daniel trying to reconcile his statements:

“No, I haven’t said it’s not tar sand oil. What I indicated is that it was not what we have traditionally referred to as tar sands oil,” Daniel said when asked about the Messenger’s report identifying it as such. “If it is part of the same geological formation, then I bow to that expert opinion. I’m not saying ‘No, it’s not oil sands crude.’” It’s just not traditionally defined as that and viewed as that.”

Amazing. Willful ignorance of the product his company moves by the millions of barrels (and his own statements, I might add). While Enbridge is not a tar sands producer, they are one of the chief mover of tar sands. They bring the goo to refineries in America. And in that role, they are undeniably part of the tar sands industry---making Daniel’s assertions somewhat breathtaking. What other industry denies the presence of their own products?

It seems to be the newest example of the industry attempting to separate itself from environmental damage. And there is already plenty to hide from. Still…why not own up?

Actually, there are some pretty compelling reasons for Enbridge and the tar sands producers to avoid transparency on this. I cannot claim to know why Enbridge chose to message in this manner, but two massive pipeline plays that will likely decide the future for the entire industry could have been a factor. First it is important to recognize that though the tar sands are huge (second largest reserves on the planet), they have a very limited market. Most of it comes south to the U.S. where it is refined in the Upper Great Lakes or Northern Rockies. With concern about tar sands growing in the States, the Canadian Oilies want to open international markets, but have no way to move their products out to ports. Literally.

But, oh, how they are trying… Enbridge is attempting to build a pipeline from the tar sands mines to the coast of British Columbia where the oily sludge could be loaded on tankers---except that they have yet to be able to negotiate right of way through the lands of more than a dozen First Nations. Enbridge already has a bad reputation with those folks, the Michigan spill made it worse, and finding that it was tar sands fouling the Kalamazoo won’t help the pipeline’s cause either…so best not to tell anyone. This spill imperils the whole project, which was already shaky. Enbridge had also planned a pipeline from central Illinois to the Gulf coast, but it has been shelved (though the first phase was not without controversy).

TransCanada, the other big Canadian pipeline company, is taking a different tact. They are trying to build a much bigger pipeline from the tar sands mines all the way to the U.S. Gulf Coast where there is already a robust oil transportation system. But they are having trouble too. DOE, EPA and many influential Congresspeople have asked for the project to be slowed. The company’s request for a special permit allowing them to use thinner steel in the nearly 2,000 mile line has many in the Plains states concerned (TransCanada may have rescinded the request, but details are sketchy). For TransCanada, it would also be preferable not to have the presence of tar sands oil noted in ongoing stories of the Michigan River cleanup.

The creeping reach of tar sands into America has been a stealth campaign. While the public has overwhelmingly expressed support for cleaner energy, Big Oil has spent tens of billions in the last few years to tie us to a fundamentally dirty source. It is a massive change in our energy and transportation sectors that none of us have had a chance to debate. I’ll admit, it would have been a fierce debate publicly. If you aren’t concerned about pollution or climate change, there is a lot to like about tar sands. No matter, squirrelly semantics like those from the Enbridge CEO have been used to obscure the nature of this fuel source. It was called tar sands for a century in Canada, but now the industry forces the new term oil sands---and even when caught dead to right, they slip and slide and slither to keep the public in the dark about this stuff.

Because in their mind its better if we just don’t know.


Kalamazoo River Oil Spill, 7-28-2010 063image by The Sierra Club via Flickr

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