It’s Not Just Keystone — Five Dirty Pipelines You’ve Never Heard Of

  • submit to reddit
Cushing, Okla. -- where Keystone XL's southern leg begins. Photo: Tara Lohan.

Cushing, Okla. -- where Keystone XL's southern leg begins. Photo: Tara Lohan

By now most people have heard of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and the fact that, after five years of deliberation and protest, its fate still hangs in the balance (the southern portion is already built, but the northern portion that crosses the Canadian-US border awaits a permitting decision). The issue has galvanized the environmental movement, inspired dozens of high-profile demonstrations and captured media attention. But while the impacts from Keystone XL are significant, it’s not the only tar sands pipeline project in town.

Usually pipelines don’t draw much attention unless something goes wrong — like when a suburban Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood was flooded with heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands last May courtesy of a busted Exxon pipeline. But increasingly, communities aren’t waiting until catastrophe strikes to voice their opposition to new or expanded pipeline projects — partly because of environmental and public health risks from spills and partly out of concern for increasing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

When Keystone XL was brought into the spotlight, people began to understand that not all pipelines are created equal — a pipeline carrying “dilbit,” or diluted bitumen from tar sands — poses different (and often greater) risks than a conventional oil pipeline. Hazardous chemicals and other hydrocarbons need to be added, along with high pressure and heat, to move viscous dilbit through a pipe. And when spills occur, the oil doesn’t sheen at the surface; it sinks — making cleanup difficult (or impossible). Just ask communities along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan where a 2010 dilbit spill of close to a million gallons is still causing headaches even after $1 billion in cleanup operations.

And then there are also the environmental implications that come from the mining of tar sands, which have devastated the boreal forests of Alberta, creating massive lakes of toxic chemicals, clear cuts, and polluted water and air.

Here’s a great description from Worldwatch Institute of what’s involved:

Producing oil from the tar sands is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. Tar sands consist of a mixture of 85 percent sand, clay, and silt; 5 percent water; and 10 percent crude bitumen, the tar-like substance that can be converted to oil. Bitumen doesn’t flow like crude oil, and getting it out of the tar sands is a messy job. The current technology, which has evolved relatively little since it was first developed in the early 20th century, is a hot-water-based separation process that requires huge quantities of water and energy. Imagine mixing a bucket of roofing tar into a child’s sandbox. Then boil some water, pour it into the sandbox, and try to wash the tar out of the sand.

In summary, it’s about the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive way to get energy these days.

In a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times, leading US climatologist Dr. James Hansen wrote, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” He was referring to the greenhouse gas impacts from the development and export of tar sands from Alberta. His “game over” assessment became a rallying cry for opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. But these days it could apply to a growing number of other pipelines in the works that could also carry dilbit.

Here are five projects that rival Keystone XL in size, but which very few people have heard of.

The Alberta tar sands. (Flickr/ Howl Arts Collective)

The Alberta tar sands. (Flickr/ Howl Arts Collective / CC)

Alberta Clipper (Line 67)

The Alberta Clipper (otherwise known as Line 67) is part of a large network of pipelines owned by Enbridge, the company responsible for the spill of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. The 1,000-mile Alberta Clipper line, completed in 2010, is still a work in progress. It was recently expanded to carry 570,000 barrels a day and now is seeking the okay to hit a design capacity of 880,000 barrels a day.

The line travels from the tar sands capital Hardisty, Alberta, southeast through Canada and then across North Dakota and Minnesota, ending in Superior, Wis. Enbridge already received permission from Canada’s National Energy Board for the expansion. But like the Keystone XL, things on the US side are still hung up pending State Department approval. With a max capacity of 880,000 barrels a day, the Clipper is larger than Keystone XL’s expected capacity of 800,000 barrels a day.

While most of the public hasn’t heard about it, the project hasn’t escaped the attention of environmental groups. As Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club wrote, the expansion means hundreds of thousands of gallons more of “heavy, toxic, corrosive tar sands being blasted against the inside of the pipeline — increasing the risk of a spill and increasing the danger and size of any such spill.”

2. Line 3 Rebuild

If pipeline companies like Enbridge and TransCanada have learned anything in recent years, it’s that getting the Obama administration’s stamp of approval for pipeline projects is no longer a sure thing (or at least a quick thing). Fortunately for them, there are some loopholes.

Enbridge is willing to shell out $7 billion for a rebuild of their Line 3 pipeline, which also transports light crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis. The line, 34-inches in diameter and built in 1968, is one of six in its US Mainline system. The replacement plan would allow the line to be widened by two inches and hit a capacity of 760,000 barrels of oil a day — nearly twice its current capacity.

And here’s the kicker. Heather Libby writes for Desmog Canada, “Unlike the Keystone XL pipeline or its predecessor Line 67… this project is classified as ‘replacement’ or ‘maintenance,’ meaning it operates under an existing presidential permit and does not require a new one.”

The change will allow Enbridge to bring nearly the same capacity as the Keystone XL will handle across the border, without requiring any sign-off from the State Department, and it will also allow it to move crude oil ranging from light (which it currently carries) to heavy (which includes dilbit).

3. Energy East

Not to be outdone by Enbridge, TransCanada is plotting a pipeline that will be the largest in North America, with a capacity of 1.1 million barrels a day. The company will be applying for a permit from Canada’s National Energy Board this summer. The route is not set in stone, but the company reports that the “4,600-kilometre pipeline will carry 1.1-million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada.”

The project would involve converting existing gas pipeline, adding new pipeline, and building new pump stations and tank terminals. It would link oil-producing regions in Western Canada with refineries in Montreal, Quebec City, and St. John, New Brunswick.

While it will run entirely on Canadian soil and won’t cross the US border, it’s still an international issue. In addition to supplying Canadian refineries, Enbridge says the pipeline will include “marine facilities that enable access to other markets by ship.”

A new report from Canada’s Environmental Defence reveals that Eastern Canadian refineries have about all they can handle already from other sources and most of what Energy East carries will end up traveling to off-shore markets.

“Canadians are being misled about this risky project. The evidence is clear that Energy East is primarily an export pipeline. Canadians would have all the risks of the pipeline, but little reward,” said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence. “Energy East threatens thousands of Canadians with the risk of a tar sands oil spill and only benefits the companies that want to export Canadian crude oil.”

4. Flanagan South

Work is already underway on Enbridge’s Flanagan South — a 589-mile pipeline — despite legal challenges from the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will link Pontiac, Ill., with “pipeline crossroads of the world” Cushing, Okla. (which is also the starting point of Keystone XL’s already-operational southern leg).

Enbridge says the pipeline will have an “initial capacity of 600,000 barrels per day.” But at the rate Enbridge is going lately, expect a plan to expand its capacity shortly. It will also run alongside Enbridge’s Spearhead pipeline (for a combined volume of 790,000 barrels a day).

The pipeline will be able to carry heavy crude (including dilbit) from Western Canada, as well as fracked oil from North Dakota’s booming (and literally explosive ) Bakken Shale. “The Flanagan South Pipeline gives North Dakota’s Bakken and western Canadian producers timely, economical and reliable options to deliver a variety of crude oil supplies to refinery hubs throughout the heart of North America or as far as the Gulf Coast,” the company reports. “From Cushing, shippers can continue through the Seaway Crude Pipeline System to meet the crude supply needs of refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.” That’s right — just like the infamous Keystone XL, this largely unheard-of pipeline will enable tar sands product to hit Gulf Coast refineries, making it a prime target for export.

Enbridge doesn’t have to mess around with State Department permits and seek Obama’s blessing for this pipeline, in fact it is speeding the process along by using a Nationwide Permit 12 from the Army Corps of Engineers. This type of permit is considered a “fast-track” because it bypasses the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which would require an environmental impact statement and public comments.

The Sierra Club and NWF’s lawsuit contends that the project was executed behind closed doors. “This massive pipeline has been authorized without any public notice, without any opportunity for public comment, without any public hearings, and without any NEPA review of the extensive environmental impacts of the entire pipeline, including the grave risk of oil spills,” the lawsuit states.

Doug Hayes, a Sierra Club attorney, says the organization has used the Freedom of Information Act to see the company’s permit application, but requests for even that basic information have been denied.

At issue is also the use of the Nationwide Permit 12, which is given for “single and complete projects” that won’t result in impacts to more than a half-acre of wetland. Even though Flanagan South will have about 2,000 stream crossings, “the definition of ‘single and complete linear project’ allows the Corps to treat each water crossing as a separate ‘single and complete project,’” the lawsuit explains. So the cumulative impacts of the pipeline are not assessed.

5. Seaway

In direct competition with TransCanada’s newly operational southern leg of the Keystone XL, which runs from Cushing, Okla., to refineries around Houston, Enterprise Product Partners and Enbridge teamed up a few years ago to reconfigure the Seaway pipeline.

Built in 1976, Seaway originally moved imported oil arriving in Freeport, Texas, north to midwest refineries. But a few years ago Enbridge and Enterprise decided to reverse the flow of the pipeline and use it to bring dilbit south from Cushing, Okla., to Houston. The repurposed and reversed line originally carried 180,000 barrels a day, but was expanded to 400,000 barrels a day last year. And now the companies are building a twin line that together will carry 850,000 barrels a day. It’s expected to be operational this year.

Reversing and repurposing pipelines has become more common with the expansion of tar sands mining in Alberta. Such changes are not usually subject to additional environmental or regulatory scrutiny. But there is concern of increased risk when older pipelines, which previously carried conventional oil, are instead used to carry dilbit, which is more viscous and needs a hotter, heavily pressurized pipeline. The dilbit spill that coated a Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood last year — Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline — was reversed to carry dilbit at a higher volume.

Other pipeline reversal plans are in the works, with Exxon and Enbridge working to reverse the flow of two pipelines in the northeast. The first, Line 9, links Sarnia, Ontario and Montreal. The second is the Portland-Montreal pipeline that crosses into Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Both currently pipe conventional oil west, but would be reversed to send dilbit to the ports of Maine. Both plans have seen much local pushback, but have been a mere blip on the radar of national media coverage in the US.

Sierra Club’s Hayes said that too often, as with Flanagan South, “these other pipelines are being permitted behind closed doors.” The kind of pushback that we’ve seen with Keystone XL, which requires State Department approval, isn’t possible because the public is given no notice.

But increased vigilance from environmental organizations and community groups (as well as growing opposition from landowners angered by potential eminent domain seizures for pipeline routes) may bring some much-needed attention to these projects., one of the groups that has led the charge against Keystone XL, says it’s also helping to support other opposition campaigns.

“In project after project, communities are facing an all-risk and no-gain proposition around expanded refining and distribution of tar sands,” said David Stember,’s regional tar sands organizer. “Like the Keystone fight we’re seeing that local citizens must come together to have a voice in state and local regulatory processes to stop these projects. Though we’re already deeply involved in several state and regional campaigns, once the Keystone project is finally stopped, we’ll continue opposing tar sands infrastructure expansion across North America.”

(Story image: Laura Borealis)

Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, runs the multimedia project Hitting Home chronicling extreme energy extraction. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, most recently, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
  • submit to reddit