Tag Archives: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

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Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

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A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

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A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

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Did lack of oversight lead to Santa Barbara spill?

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
[Benicia Independent Editor: This analysis of a pipeline failure might also shed some light on the lack of adequate State and Federal oversight of crude by rail.  No PHMSA administrator for 7 months?!  Only 3 state inspectors!?  Information not shared with first responders at the County level!?  Gosh … where have we heard this before?  – RS]

EDITORIAL: Did lack of oversight lead to Santa Barbara spill?

San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 2015

All-too-familiar images of picture-postcard California beaches befouled with crude last month revealed that regulatory oversight is sadly lacking. But whom to blame? The accountable parties are missing in action.

First missing party: The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration has been without an administrator for more than 210 days, thus exceeding the legal limit for an acting director to serve. The May 19 rupture of the Plains All American Pipeline at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches in Santa Barbara County heightened concerns the federal regulators weren’t protecting the public safety or sensitive lands.

On Thursday, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, sent a letter to the pipeline administration, declaring the Santa Barbara oil spill response “insufficient,” and giving the agency two weeks to answer questions about spill response plans, legal authority to require automatic shutoff valves, and cleanup and response efforts that ignored local knowledge and expertise. On Friday, the Obama administration announced it had a nominee, lawyer Marie Therese Dominguez, for the pipeline administrator’s job.

Second missing party: Oil transport and spill oversight in California is overseen by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, but there are only three full-time inspectors. Inspectors would leave for higher paying industry jobs as soon as the state trained them. In 2012, the fire marshal requested the authority to pay inspectors more — inspectors are paid out of a state account funded with fees paid by the oil companies — but the Legislature said no, and state oil transport oversight was ceded to the federal agency in 2013.

Third missing party: Santa Barbara County had an agreement with the pipeline owner that was overridden by federal law. Pipeline operators must file oil spill response plans with the federal agency, but due to terrorism concerns, they aren’t available to the public (including first responders who would have needed local knowledge).

Clear lines of oversight, more inspectors, and a requirement to update spill response plans would help build trust with communities over transport of this necessary energy resource.

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Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) Declares Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulatory System “Fundamentally Broken”

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  This excellent DeSmogBlog article is more about the power of the oil industry lobby than it is about Rep. Speier.  For video and transcript of Rep. Speier’s comments go to YouTube: “Congresswoman Speier calls PHMSA toothless kitten.” On her Facebook page, Speier recommends more about PHMSA’s pipeline regulatory failings at POLITICO Magazine.”  – RS]

Congresswoman Declares Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulatory System “Fundamentally Broken”

By Justin Mikulka, April 23, 2015 – 04:58

The system is fundamentally broken.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an April 14th hearing on oil-by-rail and pipeline safety.

For anyone expecting the soon to be released oil-by-rail regulations to make any meaningful improvements to safety, it would be wise to review the full comments made by Rep. Speier.

It has been more than four years since a gas pipeline exploded in Speier’s district in San Bruno, California resulting in eight deaths, huge fires and destruction of a neighborhood. In her testimony she recounted how the state regulators were clearly in league with industry prior to this accident. And in the time since she has come to find that federal regulators, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), “does not have the teeth—or the will—to enforce pipeline safety in this country.”

PHMSA is the agency also in charge of the new oil-by-rail regulations as it is a division of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). One thing is certain — the new regulations won’t address the volatility of Bakken oil. The White House has already decided that the regulations will not deal with this issue and instead they left it up to North Dakota to deal with it.

North Dakota passed regulations that went into effect April 1 that require the oil to be “conditioned” prior to shipment by rail to address the volatility. However, as has been documented on DeSmogBlog before, conditioning doesn’t remove the volatile and explosive natural gas liquids from the oil. That requires a process known as stabilization.

So with no rules in place to require the oil to be stabilized, future train accidents involving Bakken oil will very likely be similar to the seven that have occurred since July 2013. Huge fires, exploding tank cars and the now all too familiar Bakken mushroom cloud of flame.

There have been seven accidents and it has been the same in all of them. But the White House has decided that the regulations don’t need to address this issue.

Recently the Department of Energy (DOE) got involved in the discussion about Bakken crude with the release of a document called Literature Survey of Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport.

It is interesting that the DOE is commissioning reports on this topic since the department has no regulatory oversight of oil-by-rail. The report received little attention upon its release, although it was immediately touted by the American Petroleum Institute (API) as proving that the characteristics of crude oil had nothing to do with the fires occurring in the Bakken train accidents.

The API press release stated, “The Department of Energy found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

During the recent hearing, this new DOE report was cited twice by two separate members of Congress. They both used the report to question a statement recently made by Federal Railroad Administration acting administrator Sarah Feinberg regarding the need for the oil companies to reduce the vapor pressure and volatility of oil for rail transport. Reducing the vapor pressure and volatility would require stabilization.

Early in the hearing, Rep. Lou Barletta (D-PA) read a question that contained the exact same description of the report’s conclusion as the API press release.

You [Feinberg] have recently called on the energy industry to quote ‘do more to control the volatility of its cargo.’ You may have seen a recent report from the Department of Energy where the agency found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

Rep. Barletta received $106,540 from big rail in the last election cycle.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) read the exact same statement. It appeared even Feinberg was a bit surprised at being asked the exact same question by two different congressmen as she responded, “I’m happy to take that question again.”

Rep. Babin received $37,550 from the oil industry in the last election cycle with $7,500 coming from Exxon Mobil.

So, while the API wasn’t at this hearing, they had two members of Congress directly reading prepared questions that echoed their press release on the DOE report word for word.

Watch video of the two identical questions asked at the hearing:

The first important thing to note about the “no data” talking point is that it is true. The report did not find data on this because that isn’t what the report was designed to do. The report reviewed three field sampling studies on the characteristics of Bakken crude oil. None of these studies looked at “correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

It is easy to say you found “no data” when you know there is none in your source material to begin with.

Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that no one at the hearing called them on their blatant mischaracterization of the report and their ignorance of the science of Bakken oil and volatility.

In a recent article about the volatility of oil in Al Jazeera, an actual petroleum engineer clearly stated what is widely known in the oil and rail industries but is “debated” by the API and congress and regulators to avoid having to regulate the Bakken crude.

The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.”

A bunch of BS. The oil industry, DOE, FRA and PHMSA want us to believe that the properties of oil aren’t currently understood. And as outrageous as that assertion is, multiple hearings and reports have been conducted on the matter. And many more will occur before anything is done.

The DOE report outlines all of the further research the department will be doing on this issue over the next couple of years.

And as previously reported on DeSmogBlog, the exact same thing is happening with tar sands oil and dilbit. Hearings, studies, reports. With many of the studies and reports being directly funded by the American Petroleum Institute and its members. All dragging on years after major incidents like the Kalamazoo River dilbit spill.

In her testimony, Rep. Speier didn’t hold back on her feelings about the failures of the regulatory system.

PHMSA is not only a toothless tiger, but one that has overdosed on Quaaludes and is passed out on the job.

But the reality is that PHMSA is just a small piece of the much larger puzzle that includes the Department of Energy, the White House, the Federal Railroad Administration and first and foremost, the American Petroleum Institute and their supporters at all levels.

A couple of days after the hearing, FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show to discuss this problem and said the following regarding stabilization of oil.

The science is still out. The verdict is still out on what the best way is to treat this product before placing it into transport.”

Watch FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg in this Maddow clip:

But the science isn’t still out. Even in the DOE report, it clearly states that the oil needs to be stabilized to reduce the vapor pressure and that conditioning the oil, as they currently require in North Dakota, does not accomplish this.

To add to the absurdity of this situation, Feinberg admitted to Maddow that the oil industry stabilizes the oil before it is transported in pipelines or on ships. Apparently the science is crystal clear in those cases.

So while Feinberg got beat up at the hearing by congressmen and their API talking points, there was Feinberg on Maddow’s show spouting other API talking points.

Rep. Speier is probably wrong. The system isn’t fundamentally broken. This would be true if the system was designed to keep the public safe, but it isn’t. The system is designed to keep corporate profits safe so the reality is that the system is working as designed. And the bomb trains continue to roll.

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