By EMMA OGUTU
LANSING — Plans to increase the import of a raw form of oil piped from Canada through the Midwest are worrying environment groups that say the trend could pose health and environmental dangers in the Great Lakes Basin.
A new report highlights what the groups say are escalating risks of major pipeline spills of the oil, which is a potentially unstable blend of bitumen and natural gas.
“The problem is that this form of oil has a lot more corrosive elements and requires more operational heat and pressure to push through pipelines which are not built to handle these kinds of pressure,” said Josh Mogerman, senior media associate at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Chicago office.
Also involved with the report are the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and the Pipeline Safety Trust.
The crude oil contains up to 20 times more acid and is 70 times thicker than regular crude oil. It also has more abrasive, sandy particles that can damage the interior of pipelines, leading to major oil spills, the report said.
But John Griffin, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan, said the report is part of a campaign strategy to stop the use of fossil fuel.
He also said that pipelines in the U.S. are designed to handle all sorts of crude oil.
“This crude oil is no more different than any other type of crude oil in the industry,” Griffin said.
Griffin noted that fuel, which is processed from the crude oil, is a crucial and popular source of energy in the U.S.
Pipelines that sometimes carry the oil run through the Great Lakes region close to lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie. The pipelines also run under the St. Clair River, which drains into lakes St. Clair and Erie and the Detroit River.
Mogerman said that initially the U.S. imported the tar sands oil from Canada after a partial refining process.
“But the refining capacity in Canada is full, so what’s being shipped in greater and greater amounts in recent years is this diluted bitumen which is mixed with other products to make it thin enough to move through the pipelines,” he said.
The refining process takes away abrasive particles like sand and also removes silicate and sulfur to come up with a form of synthetic crude oil, a less corrosive form, according to the report.
Without any changes in safety standards, diluted bitumen imports to the U.S. increased almost five fold in 2010, according to the report. In addition, Canadian tar sands producers plan to triple the amount in the next eight years.
Kate Colarulli, who runs the “dirty fuels” campaign at the Sierra Club in Washington, said that the diluted bitumen is a toxic substance that poses elevated risks to the public.
According to the report, it contains heavy metals and gases that can cause spinal and respiratory problems in humans and wildlife if high levels accumulate.
“If the government is going to allow the importation of this oil, it should come up with new guidelines that meet the unique transportation requirements of the bitumen oil,” Colarulli said.
But Griffin said that all U.S. pipelines are manufactured, designed and maintained according to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure safety.
And Lorraine Grymala, community affairs manager at Enbridge-U.S., said oil companies like Enbridge, which is a member of the Associated Petroleum Industries, invest millions of dollars each year on pipeline maintenance and installation.
Mogerman of the NRDC said little research has been done to assess the safety requirements of transporting the material although legislation to change pipeline safety standards is pending in Congress.
Rita Chapman, director of Sierra Club’s clean water program in Michigan, said increased imports of the oils is hazardous to the Great Lakes, a critical source of drinking water for more than 33 million people.
“We need to find other energy sources – renewable sources – rather than tapping into these corrosive sources that are putting our water sources at risk,” she said.
Chapman also said that the public could face something similar to the Gulf oil disaster if a pipeline bursts near one of the Great Lakes.
“We have to change the standards of oil transportation, especially around the Great Lakes, to prevent an incident similar to that of the Kalamazoo River,” said Beth Wallace, the community outreach regional coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation’s, Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.
Last year, a ruptured pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek that drain into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge Energy is a subsidiary of Canada’s Enbridge Inc.
The environmental groups called for a re-assessment of pipelines along heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas in the Great Lakes Basin and said federal regulators should inspect pipelines instead of oil company inspectors.
Federal regulations require oil companies to inspect pipelines every five years — but only if their lines cross heavily populated or environmentally sensitive areas.
Mogerman said that more transparency is needed.
“The public needs to know that there is a significant risk related to transporting diluted bitumen,” he said. “And that is our major concern.”