Tar Sands Giants’ Sneaky New Playbook Revealed

by Tony Iallonardo, via National Wildlife Federation

Polluters seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from the Keystone XL controversy.  Rather than temper the headlong rush to exploit tar sands, they’re getting sneakier.

The tactics: Gut environmental and public review while breaking up their grandiose proposals into smaller pieces to avoid detection.  If they succeed, Americans will be stuck with a massive infrastructure of spill-prone pipelines delivering the dirtiest oil ever around the globe.

Deny Deny Deny

Big Oil has long employed deceptive tactics, but reeling from some recent setbacks, we are watching their new  game plan come to light.  With more than a million gallons of spilled tar sands crude still fouling Michigan’s Kalamazoo River since a spill nearly two years ago, the company behind that  pipeline, Enbridge Energy Partners is now denying a plan to ship tar sands oil through New England.

Their departing CEO, Patrick Daniel, showed no remorse and gave no apologies for one of the biggest fossil fuel disasters in North America in history. Instead he sounded frustrated last week, saying he wishes the tar sands pipeline business hadn’t become so controversial.  Good riddance Mr. Daniel.

Last spring, his company announced a plan to reverse the direction of a pipeline called line 9, so that it could carry crude east rather than west.  No big deal, right?  What Enbridge didn’t do was show all it’s cards. The real plan is to send dirty tar sands oil across several Great Lakes and New England states to Portland, Maine, for transfer by ship to refineries or for export. The project, called Trailbreaker, was floated two years ago, and then abandoned when the recession set in.

When local groups in New England announced opposition a few weeks back to piping tar sands near precious rivers in the area, Enbridge reached up its sleeve for the denial card. A spokesman for Enbridge told the Associated Press, “We have been absolutely clear on the fact that the company is not pursuing the Trailbreaker Project.”

That’s not credible.  As NWFs Curtis Fisher retorted in the AP article, Enbridge denied it was looking at reversing line 9, until they went ahead and announced they wanted to reverse line 9. In fact, the company is salivating at the prospect of moving (BY THEIR 2008 ESTIMATE) 150,000 barrels of tar sludge a day to Portland, Maine.

“We’re pretty excited about [Trailbreaker],” an oil executive said in a 2008 presentation,”because it provides capacity on an as-needed basis, and it involves existing assets so it can be completed at low cost and on a quick turnaround.”

So what’s the truth?  Enbridge appears to be playing a dangerous game of denial, putting the pieces in place for a tar sands route to New England, while denying the once and future Trailbreaker (or something by a different name) is happening. Elephant in the room, what elephant?

Divide and Conquer

Meanwhile, another pipeline giant, TransCanada, has split the 2,000 mile Keystone XL into two, in an attempt to move the project piecemeal and shrink the scope of the State Department’s environmental review. Wildlife Promise recently referred to this as “divide and conquer.”

[A]after Keystone XL was rejected the first time, TransCanada decided to split off the “Gulf Coast segment” of the pipeline, which stretches through Oklahoma and Texas, as a stand-alone project. Because this route doesn’t cross the US border, it avoided the need for the Presidential Permit and the review it entails.

That particular tactic paid off for TransCanada last month, as the Army Corps of engineers  gave a green light to construction of XL in Oklahoma and Texas.   The oil execs at TransCanada probably had some high-fives last month as well when the State Department announced its new environmental review will ignore the southern segment of Keystone XL.

[Click here to take action and stop latest attempt to resurrect Keystone XL.]

Must History Repeat?

In the summer of 2010, over a million gallons of tar sands oil spilled when an Enbridge  pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, contaminating  the Kalamazoo River. Families were driven from their homes and wildlife suffered and died.  Responding to the spill, Michigan Congressman Fred Upton said, “Each and every one of us is all too familiar with the devastation wrought by the BP Gulf disaster and now we have a nightmare here in our own backyard.  The mistakes and missteps that sabotaged the response and cleanup in the Gulf cannot happen here in southwest Michigan.”

A wonderful sentiment to ride out the news cycle, but Mr. Upton went on to champion Keystone XL, even as the mess persisted in his back yard.

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Enbridge to clean up the mess, but it is still not cleaned up.  Workers are still struggling to remove residual crude oil and are increasingly resigned to the possibility that it may never be cleaned.   According EPA’s website, after the spill, 39 miles of the river system were closed to public access.  By April 17, 2012, three miles – three — had been reopened.  Other segments may reopen this year, says EPA, if it is safe.

Accidents in the Trailbreaker pipeline may be more likely because it’s so old. One section is 52 years old, dating from 1950, and other large section dates to 1975. A spill from this pipeline could sully rivers, lakes and bays.  At risk would be cherished places like Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Connecticut River, the Androscoggin River, Sebago Lake and Casco Bay.

Can We Afford to Trust Enbridge?

Enbridge, like most fossil fuel giants, may know how to maximize profit, but they have failed at safety.  Given the Michigan debacle, and a history of spills in Canada, many New Englanders are asking, how we can trust Enbridge’s new tar sands scheme?

Just recently, we learned from media reports that Enbridge has under-estimated the risk of a tar sands spill along its Northern Gateway Project across western Canada, basically ignoring their dismal record in Michigan.

A former insurance CEO, Robyn Allan, concluded that Enbridge does not have “adequate insurance coverage or the corporate structure to cover a multi-billion dollar spill . . . .,” reported Andrew Nikiforuk in The Tyee. “ ‘There is no reason to believe Enbridge would be directly responsible for the cost of any spill based on the limited partnership structure. This structure allows profits to flow to Enbridge, but from what I have seen in the documents, not spill liabilities,’ explains Allan,” Nikiforuk wrote.  Allan also suggested that Enbridge only minimally understands how the heavy crude oil behaves.  It usually sinks to the bottom of a river and is harder to clean up than other fuels.

Allan added that the “company suffers from a corporate culture that places growth as priority above operational safety.”  That offers little reassurance to New Englanders. That was made evident when media recently reported that even as the Kalamazoo spill was happening, Enbridge employees, hundreds of miles away had one priority.  Get the oil flowing. Rather than check for a spill, they attempted to restart the pipeline, not once, but twice.

If Enbridge’s misadventures weren’t so heartbreaking it would be hilarious.  Maybe we should call it “Heartbreaker,” not “Trailbreaker.”

Tony Iallonardo is senior communications manager for National Wildlife Federation. This piece was originally published at the National Wildlife Federation and was reprinted with permission.

4 Responses to Tar Sands Giants’ Sneaky New Playbook Revealed

  1. P. D. Carswell says:

    Do not trust Enbridge, any executive from Enbridge, any agency for Enbridge, any law firm representing Enbridge, or anyone with any connection of any kind to Enbridge.

    We in Canada are learning the hard way about how this evil company and our government collude.

    Fight them with everything you have.

  2. mulp says:

    The lesson of Keystone was perfectly clear: Republicans have the backs of Canadian corporations and recognize their rights trump the rights of American landowners and individual Americans in general.

    Republicans apologized to a British corporation for being stuck with the fines Democrats wrote into law as infringing on the sovereign right to harm American property or individuals, and apologized for a Democratic president that wasn’t going to defend the British corporation from American individuals who looked at BP as a source of money.

    But then the entire message above just fails to connect with the American people. You yammer on and on about irrelevant stuff that affect no Americans. Except some elites who have these abstract ideas about something or another.

    The Keystone issue went off track when it was not first and foremost about jack book Canadians taking the private property of American landowners by eminent domain in high handed totalitarian threats backed by US government.

    If Keystone had remained first and foremost a battle over private individuals against an all powerful corporation using government to take private property, the public would have been very sympathetic. They might have asked why these corporations were in such need of American land, which would lead to their pillage and plunder of vast sections of Canada leaving behind massive cesspools that would harm individual Canadians.

    And the force that will kill off the tar sands projects are lots of natural gas production which will shift demand from oil to gas, causing a repeat of 1985-1995 cratering of oil prices, which will repeat the bankruptcies and closing of high cost oil production.

  3. paulina says:

    “Trailbreaker”, as presented to investors in 2008, consists of three connect the dots parts:
    1. Expansion of Enbridge Line 6B
    2. Flow reversal of Enbridge Line 9
    3. Flow reversal of PMPL

    Together, these could enable tar sands dilbit transport from the Chicago area to Portland, Maine.

    So, what is that first part? What is “Enbridge Line 6B”? That is the dilbit disaster line that ruptured and spilled over one million gallons of bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. Expanding that pipeline capacity, planned since at least 2008, is now part of Enbridge’s RESPONSE to the spill.

    It would be great if reporting on “eastern access” tar sands pipeline initiatives made clearer the relation between the dilbit disaster pipeline and the deny and divide tactic.

    That Line 6B is part of “Trailbreaker” is so well denied that we’re not even reporting on its denial!

    (To see that Line 6B expansion is part of “Trailbreaker”, see the “presentation” linked in the blog post above.)

  4. Frank Zaski says:

    More sneaky Enbridge tactics and risks: (snips from MetroTimes)
    Enbridge pipelines cross Great Lakes waterways in three locations, two of which are in Michigan: the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Clair River (leading to a refinery in Sarnia, Ontario). The third is at the Niagara River, upstream from Buffalo, N.Y.

    There appears to be no federal review of the entire replacement project despite this being an international pipeline. … Enbridge has continued to put forth, piece-by-piece, projects labeled as ‘maintenance and rehabilitation.’ These, in fact, replace a majority of the existing Line 6B with larger pipeline, which will eventually increase flow rates by almost double.

    There are many indications that DilBit is significantly more corrosive to pipeline systems than conventional crude. Bitumen blends are more acidic, thick and sulfuric than conventional crude oil. DilBit contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes, and 5 to 10 times as much sulfur as conventional crudes. … The additional sulfur can lead to the weakening or embrittlement of pipelines.”

    Refiners have found tar sands-derived crude to contain significantly higher quantities of abrasive quartz and sand particles than conventional crude. This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration.

    The relatively high heat (140 degrees) and pressure needed to move the thick DilBit through pipelines also increases stress on the system.

    Unlike other, less dense forms of petroleum, tar sands crude oil sinks instead of floats. Consequently, it can’t be cleaned up by skimming it from the top of the water, as is usually the case with oil spills.