NRDC Recycles [Claims, Baseless Accusations and Pipeline Conspiracy Theories]!

With the Keystone XL provision stalled in the federal transportation bill conference, and an environmental assessment on the newly-proposed Keystone route through Nebraska pending, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has set its sights on a brand new – and completely manufactured –controversy. They’ve found a willing audience among other fossil fuel opposition groups in New England, who joined together on Tuesday to release a “new” report entitled “Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England.”

By repurposing some old claims on pipeline safety they made back in February 2011 and loosely tying them to a pipeline that happens to connect Portland and Montreal, NRDC pieced together a report based on a national agenda, absent of the facts facing New England communities.  The 24-page report hangs on an assumption that Enbridge, the owner of the Line 9 pipeline connecting terminals in Sarnia and Montreal, will extend its reach into the Portland-Montreal pipeline to export oil from the U.S. East Coast.

The not-so-secret missing piece here is that there is no such pipeline project or plans to connect Line 9 to a reversed Portland-Montreal line. Enbridge has clearly and repeatedly explained that NRDC’s claims are simply fabricated, and supporting documents have been filed with the National Energy Board of Canada (and can be found publically on their website).

OSFC took a closer look at individual claims made throughout this report and found that we’ll need to highlight some new information and repeat some other facts in order to set the record straight. If you learn nothing else from this rebuttal, at least understand that there is a big difference between reiterating facts and reprinting uninformed claims.  NRDC may want to internalize that lesson before targeting yet another pipeline community.

p. 3:  “Reversing existing pipelines is not necessary and should not be put into operation.”

FACT: Saying that all pipeline reversals are not necessary defies logic – line reversals help to optimize existing resources to respond to changing market demands. But in the case of the Portland-Montreal line (and to the detriment of NRDC’s argument), Enbridge agreed – it has no plans with the owners and operators of the Portland-Montreal line to reverse the flow of oil. That’s why Enbridge has publically expressed as recently as its May 2012 earnings call (see slide 18) how, despite considering and abandoning a proposal several years ago, there are no plans to reverse the line now. Regardless of these statements and documents filed with the National Energy Board of Canada, NRDC still decided to write a 24-page report theorizing a “what if” situation. If you can accept the fact that their entire report is premised on a theory we could stop right here.  But there is too much to work with not to continue. 

p. 3: “The Canadian and U.S. federal governments should complete more thorough reviews of plans to transport tar sands oil through central Canada and New England, evaluating the need for new safety regulations for tar sands pipelines.”

FACT: Pipeline reviews in both Canada and the U.S. are thorough and complete. In fact, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL), oil pipeline releases that occur over time were down 36 percent between 2002 and 2009. In oil pipelines installed prior to the 1950s, which includes the 62-year-old Portland-Montreal line, releases are down by 83 percent. From the AOPL: “These statistics demonstrate that operators are managing the full array of threats and are dedicated to improving the performance of older assets.”

p. 6:  “[B]etween 2007 and 2010, pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan—all pipelines carrying tar sands oil—spilled almost three times more crude oil per mile of pipeline when compared to the U.S. national average.”

FACT: Except for gathering and collection lines that take oil sands to be processed, there is no such thing as an “oil sands pipeline”.  Oil pipelines are designed to carry crude oil (and not tar or sand).  And crude oil produced from Canada’s oil sands region, once processed, has similar characteristics to other types of crude transported throughout the United States. Let’s repeat that – oil sands crude, once processed, takes on similar characteristics as other types of crude. It travels down the same pipeline systems as oil from other parts of North America and the rest of the world.

We dug a little deeper on this assertion and checked the report’s endnotes, which reveal that NRDC doesn’t source where it gets its spill data. The statistics they use do not differentiate between conventional and oil sands crude oil … because pipelines aren’t differentiated that way. Pipelines are designed and operated based on various grades (heavy to light) of petroleum travelling through them and according to specifications designated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Crude derived from the oil sands must first be upgraded or diluted to specifications before it enters a pipeline and in so doing, takes on a gravity similar to other heavy, conventional crude oils.

p. 6: “Tar sands diluted bitumen normally has organic acid concentrations up to 20 times higher than conventional crude oil, and contains up to 10 times more sulfur.”

FACT: According to a 2011 study by Canadian energy research and technical services group Alberta Innovates, there are conventional crude oils on the market that display higher concentrations of both acid and sulfur than conventional Alberta heavy crudes, including crudes derived from the oil sands. NRDC suggests that these levels make a crude oil more corrosive and thus more dangerous to pipe. However, Alberta Innovates found that under pipeline transportation temperatures for oil sands crude, or any other crude for that matter, these compounds “are too stable to be corrosive and some may even decrease corrosion rates.”

p. 6: “Tar sands diluted bitumen flowing through pipelines creates friction, which raises the material’s temperature and amplifies its corrosive qualities.  An accepted industry standard is that corrosion rates double with every 10-degree Celsius increase in temperature.”

FACT: The most likely cause of internal pipe corrosion comes from the formation of sludge or leftover particle deposits. Bacteria found in these deposits are most active between 10 deg. C and 40 deg. C. According to the Alberta Innovates study, “higher temperatures up to 70 deg.C may reduce the corrosion rate underneath sludge deposits,” and not amplify corrosive qualities. In examining accident reports from PHMSA from 2002 to early 2011, no pipelines carrying Canadian crude have experienced releases resulting from internal corrosion.

p. 6: “Tar sands diluted bitumen has suspended in its mixture abrasive materials like quartz and pyrite sand particles.”

FACT: When Alberta Innovates conducted the research to inform its corrosivity study, it compared particle levels of heavy to light sour crudes, light sweet crude, and oil sands-derived diluted bitumen (dilbit) and diluted synthetic bitumen (dilsynbit). Researchers discovered that sediment levels of dilbit crudes were “comparable or lower than the conventional crudes.” The dilsynbit registered higher levels of sediment than most other crude, however, they were still “well below the limit set by regulatory agencies and the industry.”

p. 6: Tar sands diluted bitumen is 40 to 70 times more viscous than North American conventional crude oil.  This high viscosity requires tar sands pipelines to operate at higher pressures than conventional pipelines.

FACT: Alberta Innovates found that dilbit crudes have similar degrees of viscosities to conventional heavy crudes. Diluent can be adjusted to control viscosity in order to keep operating temperatures within normal temperatures set by pipeline operators and approved by federal regulatory agencies in both Canada and the U.S.

p. 7: “[O]lder pipelines were not designed to carry a heavy crude like diluted bitumen.”

FACT: Claims like this one do a disservice to thousands of engineers who study the integrity of pipelines as they age, just as any industrial engineer inspects bridges, tunnels and railways to ensure they are keeping up with inspections, maintenance and technology. According to the AOPL, “Pipelines are built to have long lives …Pipeline operators are required under federal statute to develop an Integrity Management Plan (IMP) for pipelines that could affect high consequence areas (HCAs) such as population centers, commercially navigable waters and environmentally sensitive areas.” The Department of Transportation, which oversees pipeline safety, agrees: “Pipelines, in short, are practical and safe.” But most of this is lost on NRDC – they don’t approve of any pipelines. Not aging pipelines with demonstrated track records, or state-of-the-art pipelines like the Keystone XL, as they pointed out in their report from last month. 

p. 9: “Enbridge is likely seeking to transport tar sands oil to the East Coast because tar sands crude is increasingly oversupplied locally and producers now receive $30 less per barrel than the average global price for crude oil. …The oil industry wants access to other markets like the Gulf coast and markets abroad, to increase their per-barrel tar sands profits.”

FACT: If we haven’t said it enough before, NRDC is opposed to a proposal that doesn’t exist – there are no plans by either Enbridge or Portland Pipeline to reverse the Portland-Montreal line. The decision to transport resources to any location is based on demand, which, according to elementary economics, is one factor that affects the price of a barrel of oil. The oil industry is seeking to satisfy demand – something the U.S. has plenty of. According to projections from the Energy Information Administration, petroleum products will make up more than 30 percent of our energy consumption into 2035.

p. 12: “The landscape left behind after tar sands oil extraction is one of extreme industrial devastation.”

FACT: Alberta law requires full reclamation of every mining site – a law put into place to ensure that “extreme industrial devastation” would not even be possible.  All companies developing the oil sands must establish a reclamation plan that spans the life of the project. Thus far, over 67 square kilometers have been reclaimed.

p. 12: “From its extraction in Alberta to its final use in a car, tar sands oil is, on average, 14 to 20 percent more carbon intensive than other imported crudes to the United States.”

FACT: First of all, NRDC lists as its reference for this stat a MarketWatch article that doesn’t even mention the 14 to 20 percent figure. Putting general research standards aside, we stand by the results of an IHS CERA report that concludes, “The average oil sands import to the United States has well-to-wheels life-cycle GHG emissions about 6 percent higher than the average crude refined in the United States.” And according to the Government of Alberta, GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced was reduced by an average of 29 percent between 1990 and 2009.

*Read more about the well-to-wheels debate in one of our previous issue alerts.

p. 13: “It is estimated that switching from refining lighter crude oils to heavier tar sands crude oils could double or even triple refinery emissions of greenhouse gasses.”

FACT: Refining of crude oil from the oil sands results in similar emissions to other conventional heavy oils refined in the U.S. According to an IHS CERA report on well-to-wheels greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions among different crude oils, GHG emissions for Californian, Middle Eastern  and Venezuelan heavy crude oils, all considered to be conventional by U.S. standards, are comparable to that of the oil sands. And refining isn’t the largest source of emissions in the life cycle of a fuel anyway. As reported by IHS CERA, 70 to 80 percent of GHG emissions for all sources of crude, including oil sands, occur during combustion.

p. 15: “According to a 2010 report by the Michigan Department of Community Health, in the weeks after the spill, health officials identified 145 patients who reported illness or symptoms associated with the leak.”

FACT: The Michigan Department’s 2010 report was a survey of verbally reported illnesses in the area surrounding the Marshall, Mich. spill site. The Department took this study one step further in 2011 and concluded that “[c]ontact with chemicals in the submerged oil will not cause long-term health effects or cause a larger-than-normal risk of cancer.” And then in a report dated May 23, 2012, which had been reviewed by the U.S. EPA and had been subject to a public comment period, the Department concluded yet again that contact with the oil “will not result in long-lasting health effects” or a “higher than normal risk of cancer.”


  1. […] abrasive? As we described in an earlier post, the folks at Alberta Innovates did their homework on this subject. In comparing properties between […]

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