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Fake Oakley Offshoot

The Bullock Pulpit: Calculated musings of a pragmatic idealist: The Keystone XL Pipeline; I could have written an entire book

Ahti Laatikainen

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Ed Brayton

TransCanada's promise that modern pipeline technology makes spills far less likely is simply absurd. They said the same thing when they opened Keystone I, the first phase of the project. That pipeline has leaked more than 30 times since it went online almost two years ago.

We did a lot of reporting on this over the last couple years at the Michigan Messenger, in the wake of the spill of nearly a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. That was the first major spill of tar sands oil in the United States and it revealed just how different that oil is from conventional crude. A few examples:

1. Because of its sludgy thickness, tar sands oil produces a huge number of false pressure alarms in pipelines. One expert who has worked in pipeline control rooms for decades told us that they would literally have hundreds of false pressure alarms every day from the stuff, making it impossible to know whether there's a leak until someone on the ground actually sees oil. By that time, it's too late. That's why so much oil was released in Calhoun County in 2010 before they got it shut off -- they went more than 12 hours between the first report of the smell of oil to the shutting off of the valves.

2. Tar sands oil reacts very differently than conventional crude when it hits water. Because it's so thick, it sinks to the bottom. As it breaks down, it returns to the surface and recontaminates even after all the skimming is done. The EPA thought they had the Kalamazoo river mostly cleaned up and the spill contained until last spring, when the oil started coming to the surface. Then they found out it had been spreading along the bottom all along.

3. Tar sands oil is laden with heavy metals in higher concentration than conventional crude. After the Michigan spill, the EPA didn't even know that it had to test for heavy metal contamination until one of my former reporters, Eartha Melzer, asked them whether they had done such testing. When they did perform those tests, they found significant amounts of heavy metals in water and soil samples as a result of the spill.

4. The process of extracting and refining tar sands oil into gasoline is far worse for the environment than conventional crude. It requires huge amounts of water and energy to separate the tar-like bitumen from the environment and the pollution from refining the stuff is significantly higher than even the usual pollution from oil refineries (which is bad enough already).

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