Science, Tech & Environment

Canadian oil company seeks to expand pipelines other than Keystone XL

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This oil pipeline pumping station in rural Nebraska helps keep crude flowing toward refineries. (Photo by Flickr user Shannon Ramos.)

Mostly overshadowed by the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, oil company Enbridge is quietly planning to expand a web of other pipelines to bring Alberta Tar Sands oil to American ports.

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President Barack Obama pledged not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it would add significantly to global warming. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest, President Obama said in a June address.

"The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant," he said.

Many Keystone opponents thought the president's words would kill the project, but Enbridge may have found another way for tar sands to reach U.S. markets.

Enbridge owns a pipeline that runs into Wisconsin and carries about 500,000 barrels a day.

"The company is looking to expand that pipeline and almost double it in size up to 880,000 barrels a day," said Lisa Song, a reporter at InsideClimateNews. "If they manage to do that, the pipeline will be larger than the Keystone XL."

The overall climate impact of the pipeline will depend on whether the diluted bitumen, also known as dilbit, from the Canadian Tar Sands would be able to get to the market.

"These pipelines would primarily transport oil from Canada, and means a lot of the same kind of dilbit oil that would be in the Keystone XL," Song said.

Enbridge has plans to turn some of its other U.S. pipelines, including many in the Midwest and Gulf Coast, into dilbit carriers.

"For example, there is a pipeline called the Trunk Line, which goes from the Midwest down to the Gulf Coast," Song said. "Right now, that pipeline carries natural gas, but Enbridge has a plan to change it to carry crude oil down to the coast,"

In 2011, Canada produced more than 1.7 billion barrels of crude bitumen, a tar-like form of petrolium and is out-producing its pipeline capacity.

"So whether both pipelines get built, or just one of them, the industry will certainly want as many as they can get," she said.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the safety of bitumen, which is thicker than conventional crude oil, should an spill occur.

In 2010, a million gallons of dilbit were spilled into a river. When the light chemicals evaporated, the heavy dilbit sank to the bottom and proved difficult to clean.

"So that’s the worry that if we start shipping more of this dilbit, then what happens when it spills?" Song said. "We still don’t know how to clean it up."