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An oiled duck in Mayflower, Arkansas.

An oiled duck, one of at least 16 found covered in Canadian crude that leaked from the Pegasus pipeline March 29, was rescued Monday in Mayflower, Arkansas.

Photograph by Courtney Spradlin, Log Cabin Democrat/AP

Bret Schulte in Fayetteville, Arkansas

for National Geographic News

Published April 4, 2013

David Hatfield, an Arkansas wildlife photographer and minister, rose before dawn on Monday and headed to Lake Conway.

Even though he had lived nearby for 25 years, Hatfield never knew of the threat now oozing near this 6,700-acre habitat 25 miles north of Little Rock, the largest game and wildlife commission reservoir in the United States.

"It surprised me that we had a pipeline here," he said.

But ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline has been buried here for more than six decades, quietly propelling oil between Texas and Illinois beneath the backyards of Mayflower, Arkansas. Pegasus' years in obscurity ended March 29, when it ruptured, spilling at least 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons/1.9 million liters) of heavy Canadian crude oil and water into the neighborhood. (See related "Pictures: Arkansas Oil Spill Darkens Backyards, Driveways.")

Now, the broken conduit is at the center of a national debate—the plan to transport much larger volumes of heavy oil from the Canadian tar sands through the United States, through both older pipelines like Pegasus and new ones like the proposed Keystone XL.  (See related interactive map: "Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.") The line break in Arkansas may provide a real-world test of a hotly contested issue: Is tar sands oil more corrosive and damaging than other types of crude? . (See related story: "Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.")

Although the U.S. State Department's environmental impact analysis last month concluded that there was no evidence that tar sands oil was worse than other forms of crude oil, it noted the issue was still under study. The results of a National Academies of Science review of the literature are due in July. But with President Barack Obama's decision on a permit for Keystone XL expected sooner than that, the Arkansas spill is providing new ammunition for foes of the project.

"The tragedy is a lot of these issues haven't been given the attention they merit," said Anthony Swift, an attorney with the international program of the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In the wake of the Arkansas spill, he and other opponents intend to make sure questions they have long been raising about tar sands oil—the risks to pipeline integrity, and the challenges for cleanup—get a greater hearing.

Oiled Ducks, Uncertain Risks

As Hatfield approached Lake Conway on Monday morning, a couple of miles from the line break, he saw children at a bus stop holding hankies or towels to their faces. "The smell of oil was almost overwhelming," he said. "I grew up in Oklahoma, so it's a familiar smell." But by afternoon, Hatfield said, the odor had been eliminated. Also, he didn't see any oil encroaching on the lake itself, just plenty of workers in hazmat suits, digging contaminated soil.

The oil sullied backyards and poured down at least one storm sewer, and 22 homes were evacuated. But emergency workers said they stopped the flow before it reached Lake Conway. Still, 16 ducks, two turtles, and a muskrat were oiled. Before an ExxonMobil contractor, Wildlife Response Services of Seabrook, Texas, took over the rescue effort, a local all-volunteer nonprofit group, the HAWK Center (Helping Arkansas Wild "Kritters"), washed and cared for the animals, posting some photos on its Facebook page. Lynne Slater, HAWK Center founder and director, said it was impossible to identify some of the ducks (there were gadwalls, mallards, and blue-wing teals) until some of the oil was removed with dishwashing soap. "It was really like removing peanut butter and tar mixed together," she said. "It was super, super sticky."

But it's an open question whether heavy Canadian oil—and specifically, oil from Alberta's tar sands—is any worse than conventional crude, which has proven its ability to cause damage whether in Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Mexico, or the sands of Kuwait.

The raw product extracted from Alberta's tar sands is known as bitumen, and it is as viscous as cold molasses. It can't be transported in pipelines unless it is processed or diluted. (Exxon Mobil says the oil that spilled in Mayflower was not diluted bitumen, but heavy Canadian oil. But there may be little practical difference between the two, since the company did confirm the presence of dilutants in the oil. And Canada's National Energy Board says western Canada heavy crude contains some bitumen.)

Questions on the properties of diluted bitumen, known as dilbit, first came to the fore in 2010 when a pipeline operated by Calgary's Enbridge burst near Michigan's Kalamazoo River, contaminating 40 miles of river and wetlands with dilbit. Workers are still cleaning up the site, at a tab now running north of $800 million, making it the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Oil typically floats on water, so booms were deployed at the surface to contain the damage to the Kalamazoo, Swift said. But the barriers proved useless when the heavy oil sank beneath them.

In the wake of Kalamazoo, NRDC conducted its own analysis of U.S. pipeline spill statistics, concluding that pipelines in the northern Midwest, which have been carrying dilbit since the late 1990s, longer than other pipelines in the United States, spilled 3.6 times as much crude per mile than the national average between 2010 and 2012. Swift and his colleagues at NRDC argue that the influx of tar sands on the U.S. pipeline network will pose greater risks to pipeline integrity and challenges for leak detection systems, and will significantly increase impacts to sensitive water resources when spilled. "It's thicker, it's heavier, it moves at higher temperatures because it generates friction," Swift said.

But other studies have reached different conclusions.

A study released this year by consultants for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) concluded that dilbit "is no more corrosive than comparable heavy sour crudes and in many cases may be less corrosive." The report argued that the industry need not take any additional measures for corrosion control "over and above what is already standard practice."

That study has been derided by some critics for its affiliation with CEPA, a pipeline industry group, but the findings largely have been corroborated by researchers at the University of Washington. That report addresses the "highly debated topic with oil sands products . . . the degree of corrosivity with respect to pipeline transport." That report, too, concludes that "ongoing research suggest that oil sands products are not more corrosive than standard crude oils and thus do not pose an increased risk for transmission pipeline corrosion."

In its environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the U.S. State Department examined Alberta's crude oil pipelines, which carry massive amounts of diluted bitumen. The study found that corrosion is indeed the main case of pipeline spills, accounting for 37.7 percent. But the report found that percentage not significantly greater than in the United States, where it's 34.4 percent. "Therefore no evidence is found that Alberta's pipeline contents are more corrosive than average crude oil."

The study has not yet been completed, so there is much anticipation—from environmental and industry groups alike—around the National Academies' effort. Results are expected this July; in the meantime, committee members aren't talking. If the study finds that dilbit is more corrosive than traditional crude, a second phase will endeavor to figure out what to do about it.

Kevin Garrity, past president of an association of corrosion engineers called NACE International, said his group is keeping a close on the process. "We at NACE want to know if we need to do anything different so that we can develop the standards and test measures to address that."

Heavy and Sticky

But the National Academies study will look only at the corrosion issue, not the equally contentious question of whether dilbit behaves differently in the environment. The State Department's EIS on the Keystone XL pipeline says that diluted bitumen is lighter than water, and would tend to float like crude oil. But once dilbit spills from a pipeline, says Swift, "it doesn't stay in combination for long." The heavy bitumen separates from its dilutants, which are natural gas liquids like benzene that evaporate easily.

"It's very hard to get off," said Steve Hamilton, a professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at Michigan State University, who advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Enbridge on the Kalamazoo spill. Because the river was high, the bitumen eventually coated a vast expanse of land as the water dropped. "The only way to get it off was to harvest all the vegetation and scrape the soil," Hamilton said. At one point, the enterprise occupied more than 2,000 workers. "People literally were going in with shovels and clippers and plastic bags collecting all this stuff." Detergents were ineffective, Hamilton said. And dispersants work only in saltwater.

Today, bitumen still lies on the river bottom, and when it is disturbed, sheens appear on the surface. Nevertheless, wildlife and vegetation are returning.

Hamilton believes accidents like the one in Kalamazoo need more oversight and scrutiny, but those are only short-term answers. In the long run, he is more concerned about the source of the bitumen—Alberta's tar sands. "It's an immense reserve of fossil fuel," he said. "I think the most serious issues involving this material is its ultimate effect on climate."  (See related photos: "Satellite Views of Canada's Tar Sands Over Time.")

But climate activists believe that how Alberta's oil gets to market will have a decisive impact on the climate question. Keystone XL, with a capacity of 800,000 barrels per day, would be the first direct pipeline connection  to the advanced-technology refineries of the Texas Gulf Coast. ExxonMobil's now-closed Pegasus pipeline, with a capacity to move 90,000 barrels a day, has been one of the few circuitous routes for moving tar sands oil to the Gulf refineries until now. Pegasus long had transported Texas oil into the Midwest, but in 2006, Exxon reversed its direction to send northern oil south. The EPA issued a corrective action order on Pegasus this week, ordering ExxonMobil to find the cause of the spill, noting that a change in direction of flow can affect the hydraulic and stress demands on the pipeline.

If so, it's yet another risk connected to the influx of Canadian oil. Other pipeline reversals to move heavy Canadian oil south and east are being contemplated or have taken place—the largest was the reversal earlier this year of Enbridge's Seaway pipeline, which now has capacity to move 295,000 barrels per day from Oklahoma to Texas.

There are other hazards. Already, some tar sands oil is moving by train; a train derailed in western Minnesota and spilled 350 barrels (14,700 gallons/55,566 liters) two days before the Arkansas spill. (See related story: "Oil Train Revival: North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.") And there will be a push for other conduits, because Canada plans to triple oil sands production to 5.1 million barrels per day by 2035.

That's why those concerned about the atmospheric impact of tar sands development are focusing attention on what happens on the ground.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

15 comments
Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

We need to be informed. In this age of IT revolution; after the nazism, communism, socialism, capitalism and more isms, propaganda is being used to try to turn the lie into the truth.

Using well  new media, and without giving up our own talents, as suggests military and Freemasons, we can overcome to which closely united, they are lying for their unconditional love, to the money.

Already discovered how to remove the oil spills, of pipelines,  and  tankers: OCEANOGENIC POWER.

Over the five years to build the first plant and HTS lines to the U.S., we use the last drops of cheap oil, and cleaner, that remain. At 5 years, we eliminate the 20 million barrels per day used by USA. Would reduce by half the addiction of our civilization.

And then we plan to include, the rest of the world.

U.S., EU, or China, have the money, Panama has the final solution. Who will have the courage? Just me?. 

Lewis L
Lewis L

The rhetoric from these environmental groups is absurd.  Anything to do with fossil fuel in any form is treated like it's the antichrist.  Not that I am buying into what large oil companies are spewing from their PR departments. 

It'd be nice to hear some common sense for once.  Look, alternative energy is failing right now because it simply cannot replace our dependence on fossil fuel.  The two are not comparable; it's like trying to compare a little league team with the major leagues.  One day a viable alternative will be prime to take over but for the next few decades we will most certainly depend on fossil fuels in our daily lives.  It's a fact, no environmental agenda is going to change that. I have no doubt that slow progression into alternative energy forms is what the future holds but trying to speed it up by throwing tax dollars into it is clearly not helping (solar/wind as examples).  Now I'm not pro-oil or anti environmental but I am sick of seeing politicians throw billions into alternative or "green" energy only to get nothing in return.  

Whether people care to admit it or not, pipelines like this are required the world over.  You can hate it all you want but for 99.9% of us, everything we do, own, buy or make in one form or another has ties to oil. 




Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

Exactly, is spent a lot, and talks like a big deal, of a project that does not tickling the more than 20 times the requirements for mechanical energy used in the USA,and nobody wants do nor a cheap mension of the discovery, OCEANOGENIC POWER OF PANAMA , because makes unnecessary for always the use of oil and nuclear energy in the world. 

It will be coincidence that these are raw material for weapons?

DEAILS:  http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usuario:Ocharpen or <a href="http://www.academia.edu/1478086/OCEANOGENIC_POWER" target="_blank">OCEANOGENIC POWER</a>

Grant MacDonald
Grant MacDonald

Canada is building pipelines from Alberta to British Columbia to ship oil and natural gas to China -- since the United States wants to play political gamesmanship …!

Also there is a pipeline recently authorized from Alberta to Irving Oil in Saint John, New Brunswick.  Seems the Canadians are the winners after all.

Ron Bockman
Ron Bockman

dumb comments, the crude was coming through 40 year old pipe and I wouldn't put it past the so-called activists to commit sabotage

Rob Dekker
Rob Dekker

There have been dozens and dozens of posts about the Keystone XL, but somehow I feel that some basic answers remain unanswered.


For example :


- Domestic consumption is on a down trend due to improvements in engine efficiency, so why would we want to INCREASE our imports by building a pipeline from Canada ?


- Is it true that refineries in Gulf are in a "tax free foreign trade zone" so that profits made from the oil flowing through the Keystone XL is not subject to US income tax or state tax, as long as they are exported ?


- How is it possible that a foreign corporation can use "eminent domain" to force this pipeline over US land owners ?


- Why did the US State Department investigate the environmental impact of laying the pipe, but completely ignored the environmental impact of producing the oil that flows through it ?


- Is it true that to 830,000 bpd Keystone would cause and extra 500,000 ton per day of toxic sludge be pumped in to unlined toxic waste ponds held back by the largest dams on the planet, and that these dams are made of ... sand ?


- Where is the environment impact study for these tar sands open pit mines ?


- Why do so many politicians insist on letting this pipeline cross the border ?


The argument of 'jobs' is ridiculous. Even by TransCanada's own assessment this pipeline will only create a few thousand temporary jobs, with most of them going to Canadian expats. That's less than a drop in the bucket for the US economy, which added a "paltry" 88,000 jobs in the last month alone.


The argument of 'energy independence' is equally ridiculous. Last time I checked, Canada was a sovereign nation, and besides that, only the refineries in the Gulf get to decide which oil they buy from whom.


So why on Earth would the Keystone XL be such a hot item on the Republican political agenda that they are willing to push an item vote into the Senate on this issue, and why did even some Democratic senators vote in favor of this pipeline, even though NOT A SINGLE rational argument was presented that benefits the "national interest" for the people of the USA ?


I sincerely hope that our president can ignore the immense fossil fuel lobby pressure that is pushing this pipeline through our throat.

Rob Dekker
Rob Dekker

There have been dozens and dozens of posts about the Keystone XL, but somehow I feel that some basic answers remain unanswered.


For example :


- Domestic consumption is on a down trend due to improvements in engine efficiency, so why would we want to INCREASE our imports by building a pipeline from Canada ?


- Is it true that refineries in Gulf are in a "tax free foreign trade zone" so that profits made from the oil flowing through the Keystone XL is not subject to US income tax or state tax, as long as they are exported ?


- How is it possible that a foreign corporation can use "eminent domain" to force this pipeline over US land owners ?


- Why did the US State Department investigate the environmental impact of laying the pipe, but completely ignored the environmental impact of producing the oil that flows through it ?


- Is it true that to 830,000 bpd Keystone would cause and extra 500,000 ton per day of toxic sludge be pumped in to unlined toxic waste ponds held back by the largest dams on the planet, and that these dams are made of ... sand ?


- Where is the environment impact study for these tar sands open pit mines ?


- Why do so many politicians insist on letting this pipeline cross the border ?


The argument of 'jobs' is ridiculous. Even by TransCanada's own assessment this pipeline will only create a few thousand temporary jobs, with most of them going to Canadian expats. That's less than a drop in the bucket for the US economy, which added a "paltry" 88,000 jobs in the last month alone.


The argument of 'energy independence' is equally ridiculous. Last time I checked, Canada was a sovereign nation, and besides that, only the refineries in the Gulf get to decide which oil they buy from whom.


So why on Earth would the Keystone XL be such a hot item on the Republican political agenda that they are willing to push an item vote into the Senate on this issue, and why did even some Democratic senators vote in favor of this pipeline, even though NOT A SINGLE rational argument was presented that benefits the "national interest" for the people of the USA ?


I sincerely hope that our president can ignore the immense fossil fuel lobby pressure that is pushing this pipeline through our throat.

Craig Dillon
Craig Dillon

Since the crude is so horrible, why not put the refineries in Canada, and then pipe nice clean gasoline and diesel fuel to the US?  Why is it so important to feed the refineries in Texas? 

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

Impoverished people the world over rely on inexpensive fossil fuels. We have manufactured a crises over CO2, fracking and oil spills that impacts on everyone.

Despite all the alarmism.

There has been no significant increase in temperature for almost 17 years.

There is no significant evidence that fracking is dangerous.

There is no significant long term environmental impact from the very occasional oil spill.

The spill of human population has been, remains and will continue to be the only significant danger to the environment.

Everything you have ever seen from your car window, an airplane, in a picture or on tv was built in just the last 150 years as our population swelled from 1 billion to 7 billion. Countless stretches of forest and jungle have been lost to development. Countless species have been lost to this habitat destruction. Countless species in S. America and Africa are endangered right now.

NO ONE disputes the consequences of this population growth. NO ONE disputes that we will add several billion more people before the end of this century.

This concern over fossil fuels and fossil fuel production is a manufactured crises and an easy way out for lazy people to avoid the very real and immediate environmental and social problems that exist all around us right now.  

Marcos Toledo
Marcos Toledo

These energy companies have to get their act together and stop behaving irresponabily. Thave to be prepared to deal quickly with accidents like these and know what to do when they happen. Better yet why not refind the Tar Sand Oils in Canada where they are extracted than shipping them to the Gulf of Mexico.

Rob Dekker
Rob Dekker

Lewis said :

"The rhetoric from these environmental groups is absurd.  Anything to do with fossil fuel in any form is treated like it's the antichrist"

which is a classic example of what is called a "stawman argument".


Lewis, nobody says that "Anything to do with fossil fuel in any form is treated like it's the antichrist".


In fact, the only ones even mentioning "antichist" in the context of fossil fuels are the people who believe that the UN is the anti-Christ, and who single out environmentalism as part of the perceived UN’s sinister agenda to form a world government.


Like Cathie Adams, the President of the Texas Eagle Forum and former Texas GOP chair, who believes that CO2 emissions do not cause climate change and that vaccination is a plot to steal American freedom.


http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/12/08/1297071/us-senator-protests-climate-talks-with-activist-who-believes-the-un-is-the-anti-christ/


In contrast, the environmental groups opposing this pipeline are using facts, scientific evidence and plain common sense to make their case :

http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline

http://www.nrdc.org/energy/keystone-pipeline/

http://act.350.org/letter/a_million_strong_against_keystone/


So whos rhetoric is "absurd" again ?


Samantha Masters
Samantha Masters

@Guy Holder Are you saying that population growth ought to have a decrease or even be ceased as we are exhausting the natural resources of the environment? If so, did you take into consideration that a decrease or a cease in population growth could eventually cause extinction of the human race as the generations age ?

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