Every day more than one million barrels of oil flow to refineries in the United States from western Canada’s oil sands region. Producers hope to quadruple that amount in the next decade, arguing that oil from a friendly neighbor will deliver an extra degree of national security.
But this oil is no ordinary crude oil, and it carries with it risks that we’re only beginning to understand. Its core ingredient — bitumen — is not pumped from wells but is strip-mined or boiled loose underground.
Industry insiders long considered bitumen to be a “garbage” crude. But now that the light, sweet oil we covet has become more scarce and its price has skyrocketed, bitumen has become worth the trouble to recover. At room temperature, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter, thick enough to hold in your hands. To get it through pipelines, liquid chemicals must be added to thin it into what’s known as dilbit, short for diluted bitumen.
Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that was harshly critical of the federal government’s regulation and oversight of pipeline safety following a spill of more than one million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. The accident underscored not only how different dilbit is from conventional oil, but how unprepared we are for the impending flood of imports.
After the dilbit gushed into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy bitumen sank to the river bottom, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated, creating a foul smell that lingered for days. People reported headaches, dizziness and nausea. No one could say with certainty what they should do. Federal officials at the scene didn’t know until weeks later that the pipeline was carrying dilbit, because federal law doesn’t require pipeline operators to reveal that information.