Tar sands oil spills on Arkansas town

Residents of Mayflower, Ark., found out the hard way on March 29 that their subdivision was built atop Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Pegasus pipeline. The pipe ruptured, sending upwards of 10,000 barrels of heavy tar sands oil gushing onto yards and streets. Mayflower is about 25 miles north of Little Rock.

Built in the 1940s, the 850-mile, 20-inch-diameter Pegasus pipeline originally carried 65,000 barrels per day of traditional crude oil from Texas to Illinois. In 2006, the flow was reversed. Its capacity was later expanded to carry 95,000 bpd of Wabasca Heavy crude oil south from Canada.

Wabasca Heavy crude is a type of diluted bitumen, called dilbit, from Alberta’s tar sands region. Light hydrocarbons are used to dilute the heavier bitumen so it can flow through pipelines designed to carry much thinner oil.

Heavier and dirtier than regular crude, dilbit spills are also much more difficult to clean up. Since conventional oil floats, most spills can be cleaned up using skimmers. As the diluents in dilbit evaporate, however, the heavier bitumen forms a sludge that sinks and requires dredging to fully remove. The cleaning process necessitates draining water, clearing forests and removing much of the surrounding ecosystem.

Exxon Mobil has been cagey about reporting that its pipeline was transporting bitumen, as this raises a question of who will ultimately pay for the cleanup. Companies transporting conventional oil are required to pay into an Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. In 2011, however, the Internal Revenue Service exempted companies transporting tar sands oil from paying this tax. Should the fund go broke, taxpayers may end up footing Exxon Mobil’s expensive cleanup bill.

Exxon limits media access

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, any spill over 250 barrels is considered a “major spill.” However, the full extent of the damage from the Arkansas spill has been difficult to gauge, since the Federal Aviation Administration put a “no fly zone” in place over Mayflower on April 1 and gave Exxon Mobil oversight of the zone. Anyone wanting to document the disaster has to get Exxon’s permission.

Borrowing a page from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, Exxon has severely limited media access. Calls to the cleanup command center in Mayflower go directly to Exxon Mobil’s Texas office, which issues daily press releases.

Cleanup areas are off-limits to the media. “Signs of the Times” journalists attempting to film in the area reported being threatened with arrest by police, who told them they were taking their orders directly from Exxon. (April 5)

The blog radio reporters also noted that while Exxon evacuated residents of 22 homes, people living in adjacent areas, and in some cases even closer to the spill, were not evacuated, nor has Exxon provided them with medical attention or warned about the danger of exposure to tar sands oil. Nearby shops and restaurants also remain open.

Several people in the area reported vomiting, headaches, dizziness, burning throats and coughing — the same symptoms reported by Michigan residents in 2010 after Enbridge Inc., a Canadian pipeline transport company, spilled nearly a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

More than one pipeline accident per day

Four days before the Mayflower spill, the Department of Transportation announced that Exxon Mobil would be fined $1.7 million for a spill of 1,509 barrels in Montana’s Yellowstone River in 2011.

The Mayflower pipeline rupture was the third major oil spill in a week. Two days earlier, a train derailed in western Minnesota, spilling 15,000 gallons of crude into a rural field. Almost 30,000 gallons of crude oil also spilled from a Shell pipeline in West Columbia, Texas. Roughly 60 barrels of the oil entered Vince Bayou, a waterway that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Pipeline accidents occur on a regular basis. Between 1999 and 2009 over 4,100 pipeline accidents were reported across the U.S. — a rate of more than one per day. Oil and gas pipelines span the continental U.S., with heavy concentrations in the Great Lakes area and the Gulf Coast states.

More pipelines have been built in recent years to bring Canada’s tar sands oil to the Texas Gulf area to be refined and shipped abroad. The Keystone XL pipeline is the most controversial. Part of this pipeline is already built. Still to be constructed is the section that would cross the U.S./Canadian border.

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm over the impact that burning this dirtier oil would have on global warming, as well as the danger that potential leakage could cause as the pipeline passes through major aquifers. When the measure first came up for his approval in 2011, major demonstrations led President Barack Obama to reject it.

However, blocking the Keystone XL won’t stop Canadian tar sands oil from coming through the U.S. As evidenced by the Pegasus Pipeline, it already is. Oil exporters want the Keystone XL because it would be bigger than existing pipelines. If approved by Obama, the Keystone XL would carry nearly one million barrels a day — 10 times the amount of crude oil in the Pegasus line.