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Tar Sands in the Basin: An exclusive three part series on the TransCanada pipeline

By Kenny Mitchell Tribune News Editor
June 26, 2012 at 11 p.m.


<em><strong>Editor's Note:</strong> We start in this issue an exclusive three part series dealing with the Keystone XL pipeline, specifically its impacts on our Northeast Texas water supply, the Sulphur River Basin. In the first of the series, we ask TransCanada the questions of how and where the pipeline crosses the Sulphur and their response to safety concerns and what they will be doing to prevent a potentially catastrophic oil spill in the basin.</em>

With much speculation and political wrangling over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which is touted to be a 1,700 mile pathway from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast in Texas, little has been asked locally what the pipeline means to us here in Bowie County and how its coming through our area might have drastic implications to the environment and eco-system of the Sulphur River Basin.

Ecologists and environmentalists from across Texas and the nation continue to mount opposition to the project, warning of the dangers of toxic oil spills into local water supplies and the devastation of eco-systems all along the pipeline's proposed route. Opponents say the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline still introduces significant risk of a tar sands oil spill to America's heartland, and say that the pipeline is designed to export tar sands out of United States, most likely to China, and will in fact increase gas prices instead of lower them as proponents decree.

Much has been made about a recent increase in pipeline ruptures and oil spills, especially those in major water supplies like the Kalamazoo River in Michigan two years ago that still has workers trying to clean up the toxic sludge and still has miles of the river closed off and of no use.

With an effort to determine what exactly would be the risks and damage to the Sulphur River Basin, the Tribune asked the pipeline's owners, TransCanada, exactly how it would cross the watershed and how the tar sands would be propelled through the area. We asked a series of questions to TransCanada representative James Prescott and received the following responses.

<em>What is the process that will be used to cross the Sulphur River Basin?</em>

"A little background first: federal code requires a minimum depth of cover of three feet for oil pipelines, but the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project (previously known as Keystone XL in Texas and Oklahoma) exceeds that requirement because it will be buried a minimum of four feet from the top of the pipe to the topsoil grade. In addition to that step, the Gulf Coast Pipeline has been designed and will be operated to comply with 57 conditions above and beyond current federal code. Federal regulators have said those extra steps make the Keystone Pipeline System (which includes the Gulf Coast Pipeline) safer than any other pipeline in the United States.

As with other sections of the Keystone Pipeline System, the Gulf Coast Pipeline will be buried significantly deeper at road and waterbody crossings, where we will construct the pipeline using thicker steel and non-abrasive coatings at those locations and operate it at lower pressure with extra valves in the Sulphur River Basin that will provide more safeguards.

In the Sulphur River Basin, where the Gulf Coast Pipeline will parallel an existing Kinder Morgan pipeline in Lamar, Delta, Hopkins and Franklin counties, the Gulf Coast Pipeline will cross the North Sulphur River, South Sulphur River and White Oak Creek using a technique called horizontal directional drilling. The pipeline will be buried approximately 48 feet below the North Sulphur River, 40 feet below the South Sulphur River, and 58 feet below White Oak Creek."

<em>What are the specifics of the actual pipe?</em>

TransCanada is designing and will build and operate the Gulf Coast Pipeline to meet or exceed all safety standards and regulatory requirements. In general the pipe thickness will be approximately 0.5 inches, as specified by the governing federal regulations that apply to all interstate pipelines.

TransCanada proposed an updated approach to the design of the pipe that recognizes thickness is not the sole factor that determines strength of the pipe. TransCanada's updated approach reflects advances in materials, metallurgy, controls, operations, and integrity management practices. The safety design includes additional steps to assure the integrity of the pipe during construction and throughout the operation of the pipe. To further assure safety, the pipe would be tested to exactly the same safety margin as pipe of standard design. As mentioned above, the Gulf Coast Pipeline and the entire Keystone Pipeline System will be as safe as or safer than any other pipeline.

<em>What is the method used to ensure the mobility of the oil through the pipeline (heating, etc.)?</em>

The Gulf Coast Pipeline will transport Canadian oil as well as oil produced from production fields in Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. The oil will be moved through the pipeline through a series of pump stations located approximately 50 miles apart from each other. Pipeline pressure will range from a maximum of 1440 psi when oil leaves a pump station and will drop to 50 psi when it arrives at the next pump station. The oil will not be directly heated; friction creating by pumping crude oil through pipeline creates heat.

<em>What is the composition of the diluents in the oil being transported through the pipeline?</em>

In addition to U.S.-produced oil, the Gulf Coast Pipeline most likely will transport Canadian oil that will include conventional, diluted bitumen and synthetic crude oils. The chemical composition of oil sands crude is comparable to other types of crude oil produced in California, Nigeria, Russia and Venezuela that have been transported and refined in the United States for decades.

As to the composition of the diluents, which some groups have alleged make the oil more corrosive and prone to pipeline failures, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) examined this issue and concluded as follows: "Analysis of pipeline failure statistics in Alberta has not identified differences in failure frequency between pipelines handling conventional crude versus pipelines carrying crude bitumen, crude oil or synthetic oil."

"Diluent by nature is a lower viscosity, higher vapor-pressure solvent. It could be considered to be more volatile in its natural state, as it consists of lighter-end hydrocarbons. However, when blended with bitumen, the resulting blend is a new product consisting of thinned bitumen that more closely resembles conventional crude oil. Once mixed with diluent, dilbit should behave in the same manner as other crude oils of similar characteristics."

In part two of this series next week, we speak to environmentalists, ecologists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the risks and dangers of a potential oil spill in the Sulphur River Basin and what measures would go into place if one was to occur.

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