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Tar sands battle comes to Northern Minnesota

Groups file suit to block "illegal scheme" by Enbridge Energy

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/12/14

REGIONAL— The growing battle to halt the development of the Canadian tar sands is headed for a federal courtroom in Minnesota.

A coalition of organizations, including national and northern …

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Tar sands battle comes to Northern Minnesota

Groups file suit to block "illegal scheme" by Enbridge Energy

Posted

REGIONAL— The growing battle to halt the development of the Canadian tar sands is headed for a federal courtroom in Minnesota.

A coalition of organizations, including national and northern Minnesota-based groups have joined forces in a legal action to head off what they claim is an end-around of federal law by Enbridge, a major pipeline operator in the state.

According to a lawsuit filed this week in Federal District Court in Minneapolis, the groups claim that Enbridge and the U.S. State Department colluded in allowing the company to install a new section of pipeline across the U.S.-Canadian border prior to completion of an environmental review process.

While the new section of pipeline enters the U.S. in northeastern North Dakota, the company’s plans to ship as much as 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of bitumen from Alberta through northern Minnesota to refineries in Superior, Wis., is raising concerns among Indian tribes in the region as well as environmentalists.

Speaking during a conference call on Wednesday, Winona LaDuke, Program Director for the group Honor the Earth, a co-plaintiff, said Enbridge’s plan to sharply increase shipments of bitumen (pronounced “bich-u-men”) across northern Minnesota threatens the traditional livelihood of members of the White Earth, Leech Lake, and Fond du Lac bands of Anishinaabe, undermining the tribes’ treaty rights in the process. “We rely extensively on the lands and waters of the region, to hunt and fish and harvest wild rice,” said LaDuke. “We’re well aware of Enbridge’s track record of over 800 spills along its pipelines,” she said.

Joining Honor the Earth in the lawsuit are the Minnesota Conservation Federation, the National Wildlife Federation, the White Earth Nation, Bemidji-based Indigenous Environmental Network, MN350, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

While opponents express concerns about spills along the pipeline, as well on the Great Lakes, the groups involved also cited the growing urgency to address climate change. “It’s ironic that this is happening at same time that Secretary of State Kerry is announcing a new climate change agreement with China. There is no way we can achieve those objectives if we continue to allow more production of tar sands oil,” said Kieran Suckling, with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, noted that due to the energy-intensive nature of tar sands extraction, it generates far more carbon emissions than other sources of oil. “Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil in the world,” he said. “And its production is destroying the land of indigenous peoples,” he said.

Natural resource development all around the world has faced growing opposition from indigenous groups, and that has certainly been the case in Canada, where native groups have worked, sometimes successfully, to block planned projects.

Tribes in northern Minnesota have increasingly joined forces with those efforts, and have become major factors in pushing back against development threats from pipelines as well as copper-nickel mining.

Brune said such efforts have begun making a difference. “We’re starting to see real success in curbing the expansion of tar sands,” he said. “Something like this new pipeline from Enbridge can not be allowed to go forward if we’re going to continue to make this kind of progress.”

While the overall concerns surrounding the lawsuit are broad and far-reaching, the actual complaint is limited to the decision by the State Department to allow Enbridge to replace a section of 1960s-vintage pipeline, known as Line 3, that passes across the border in North Dakota.

According to the complaint, Enbridge plans to use the section of pipeline, which is currently permitted for 450,000 bpd, to bump as much as 800,000 bpd of bitumen across the border, which would then be transferred to a newer, adjacent pipeline, known as the Alberta Clipper. Enbridge proposed in 2012 to boost transfers along the Alberta Clipper line, but because the pipeline crosses the border it has been subject to an ongoing environmental review by the U.S. State Department. That review has yet to be completed, and the complainants allege that Enbridge is using the Line 3 pipeline as an illegal end-around to ramp up shipments of bitumen even before the environmental review is completed.

The Enbridge pipeline is currently in the midst of the same environmental review as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed for construction from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. While the Enbridge pipeline has received far less attention from environmentalists, it would increase the pipeline capacity for shipping Alberta bitumen to international markets by approximately 350,000 bpd. That’s about two-thirds of the additional capacity that would be generated by construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. And by bringing bitumen to Superior, the pipelines would enable producers to reach international energy markets through the Great Lakes— and that’s another environmental risk posed by the project, according to opponents. “There is definitely the risk for increased shipping of oil on the Great Lakes,” said Jim Murphy, with the Minnesota Conservation Federation.

Bitumen an unusual oil product

The unusual nature of bitumen has heightened the concern of environmentalists over the consequences of pipeline spills.

The tar-like bitumen produced in Alberta is often described as having the consistency of peanut butter. In order to transport the material through pipelines, it must be thinned with natural gas and other chemical thinners to make it less viscous, said Murphy. This diluted bitumen, known as “dilbit” in the industry, poses very different risks in the event of a spill than more traditional types of oil. The dilution ultimately makes the substance much more difficult to clean up in the event of a spill, according to Murphy. Enbridge learned that lesson in 2010, when one of their pipelines in Michigan ruptured, pouring 1.1 million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River before Enbridge crews were able to halt the flow eighteen hours after it was first detected.

Once spilled, the volatile chemical thinners quickly off-gassed, leaving the tar-like bitumen behind. And unlike lighter forms of oil, which float on water making clean-up easier, the bitumen sinks in water, coating bottom sediments in the thick, toxic tar. Despite four years of clean-up, at a cost of nearly one billion dollars, the river remains contaminated to this day, said Murphy.

LaDuke noted that dilbit is also more acidic than most traditional oil products and must be more highly pressurized within a pipeline, which makes pipelines more subject to catastrophic breaks.

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Looks like an interesting situation. Should a 50 year old pipeline be replaced with a new one? Are the spill risks increased or decreased?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rick,

I think you missed the point...but of course you know that.

From the article:

Enbridge plans to use the section of pipeline, which is currently permitted for 450,000 bpd, to bump as much as 800,000 bpd of bitumen across the border...

Are spill risks increased or decreased when you almost double the volume?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014