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What Do We Know About Transporting Oil Sands in the United States?

Response operations near the source of the oil sands spill on Talmadge Creek.
Response operations near the source of the oil sands spill on Talmadge Creek near Michigan's Kalamazoo River. August 1, 2010 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Robin Fay, Terry Sullivan, Shanese Crosby, Jeffrey Smith, Ali Kani, and Colin Groark.

APRIL 23, 2013 — Over the past 6 months, our research team has been gathering data and interpreting information to help NOAA's Office and Response and Restoration (OR&R) better prepare for a potential spill of Canadian oil sands product in U.S. waters. (Oil sands are also known as tar sands.)

Our research has sought to provide OR&R, whose experts offer scientific support in case of a marine or coastal oil spill, with:

  • Background and context on oil sands development and transport.
  • In-depth research on the physical properties of oil sands products, national transportation networks, and emerging risks.
  • Analysis of the existing information and policy gaps, and some recommendations aimed at improving pollution response readiness in the event of an oil sands spill.

In doing so, we have worked to answer some key research questions, which we developed with the OR&R and other stakeholders (e.g., Washington State Department of Ecology), including:

  • Would oil sands products sink or float when spilled in salt water? What about fresh water?
  • How might oils sands products weather and change their physical and chemical characteristics once spilled into the environment?
  • How and where are oil sands products already being transported around the U.S. and Washington’s Puget Sound?
  • What are the future plans for expanding the national transportation network for oil sands products?

Our research took us into the technical depths of petroleum chemistry, state-of-the-art oil spill response technology, federal and state regulations, human and environmental health implications, and several types of transportation networks. From early on, it was clear to us just what a complex and far-reaching issue oils sands development really is. In some cases, trying to find answers just led to more questions. Although there are still many things we don’t know for sure and further research is needed, we ultimately were able to get closer to understanding the unique risks and challenges oils sands products pose to pollution responders and the environments they work to protect.

Here are our top five research findings:

  1. All oil sands products are not created equal. They are not homogenous and are not easily categorized by any particular set of characteristics. Their composition and physical properties can vary widely based on many factors, including: what region the product originated from, what chemicals or substances it has been blended with, and how much processing or upgrading it has gone through prior to transport. This means that anticipating appropriate response action for a diverse array of products labeled as “oil sands” is somewhat of a moving target.
  2. Very little is known about how oil sands products might weather (or change) in the environment. Some studies have been done on this topic[1], but they have typically tested one or two specific oil sands products in a laboratory setting. Their results cannot be presumed to represent the full range of possible weathering scenarios (e.g., the varying influence of waves, sunlight, wind, etc). Understanding how an oil changes as it weathers in the environment is critical to planning and executing an effective spill response.
  3. The United States already receives almost 1.4 million barrels per day of oil sands products from Canada. This oil is transported all over the country by pipeline, rail, tanker ship, and barge. Although the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project is certainly the most visible oil sands infrastructure expansion project currently in the works, it is far from the only one. Many other pipeline expansion and terminal projects have been proposed—such as the Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway expansions proposed by Kinder Morgan and Enbridge—which would bring Alberta oil into Western Canada and even as far as Cherry Point and Anacortes, Wash. If completed, they could more than double the capacity to transport oil sands products into the U.S.
  4. While pipeline projects—like the Keystone XL—have met fierce resistance from environmental groups, tribes, and others concerned about the risks these projects might present to their communities, the oil industry already has begun (without fanfare) to use rail for transporting oil sands products instead. Because the network of rail lines already exists, and the regulatory framework governing oil transport by rail is less developed, this segment of their transportation has been expanding rapidly. The full extent of current and planned oil sands transport by rail is unknown.
  5. During our assessments, we found critical gaps in the current oversight, rules and regulations, contingency planning requirements, and response capacity to address the increasing transport of oil sands products. In order for regulators and responders to address effectively the emerging risks associated with oil sands products, these gaps must be addressed. Response equipment needs to be developed that is proven to be effective at detecting, containing, and removing oil sands products from the environment. Disclosure requirements for those processing and transporting oil sands products need to be improved so that regulatory agencies can better understand where and how to prioritize their efforts. Additionally, oversight, risk assessment, and contingency planning should be enhanced to take into account the increasing possibility of a spill of oil sands product. This need and the lack of adequate response capacity for oil sands products have been highlighted by the recent spills in Minnesota and Arkansas.

That’s a tall order, and unlikely to happen overnight. But there is some good news. Locally in Washington state, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Coast Guard in Sector Puget Sound have been pioneers. They are already working to improve their ability to prevent, plan for, and respond to an oil sands product spill. Last December, a conference in Portland, Maine, brought experts together from across the U.S. and Canada to discuss oil sands, and a similar conference recently was held in Seattle on April 16.

Stakeholders and policy makers we spoke with on both coasts, in the Great Lakes region, and in Canada have all begun to consider how increased oil sands development affects their region or function. Oil sands slowly are beginning to appear with greater prominence on the agenda for decision makers, not just for a particular state or project, but as an issue that spans political and geographic boundaries. If oil sands development and transportation continues to receive more and more attention, we hope it will also receive the oversight and response resources necessary to address sufficiently the risks that come with it.

Last updated Tuesday, November 8, 2022 1:48pm PST