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Is thick crude oil from Canadian tar sands behind Arkansas pipeline rupture?

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

A massive pipeline rupture that spilled bitumen from the Alberta oil sands in an Arkansas suburb has some questioning the effect that thick Canadian crude may have on U.S. pipelines.

Three days after the major oil spill was first reported, cleanup efforts are still underway and the ruptured pipeline remains shut off. Residents have been evacuated from the affected area and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to oversee the cleanup.

Reuters reports that the 20-inch pipeline ruptured on Friday, spilling an unknown amount of oil into the area of Mayflower, Ark. The latest update from ExxonMobil posted on Sunday reports cleanup efforts remain underway, with approximately 12,000 barrels of oil and water already cleared from the area.

[ Related: Exxon cleanup of Arkansas oil spill continues, pipeline still shut ]

According to CNN, the Pegasus pipeline shepherds Canadian oil from Illinois to Texas. Its rupture comes at a bad time for the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project the Canadian government is hoping will receive the green light from its American counterpart.

The Keystone XL pipeline would run straight from the Alberta oil sands directly to Texas. Its construction depends on approval from the U.S. government, which has been delayed in no small part by environmental concerns.

The National Resources Defense Council claimed on Monday that the thick Canadian crude being moved from the oil sands could be putting undue pressure on U.S. pipelines.

The group claims the “tar sands diluted bitumen is substantially different from the conventional crude historically moved on the U.S. pipeline system.” The argument is that the combination of thick bitumen and the natural gas it is mixed with when it is transported creates a “substantially higher risk of rupture” due to corrosion.

[ More Brew: U.S. billionaire joins fight against Keystone XL pipeline ]

The National Resources Defense Council writes:

The Pegasus tar sands pipeline rupture adds to growing evidence that tar sands poses additional risks to our nation’s pipelines and communities.… While U.S. regulators don’t differentiate between tar sands pipelines and conventional crude pipelines, States with pipelines that have moved the largest volumes of tar sands diluted bitumen for the longest period of time – North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan – have spilled 3.6 times as much crude per pipeline mile as the national average.

Whether Canada’s thick oil sand product is responsible in any way for the Arkansas pipeline rupture is yet to be confirmed. As of Sunday, Exxon says the cause of the spill was still under investigation and excavation of the pipeline had not begun.

Regardless, it should be considered bad timing for the Keystone XL pipeline. The project is in the midst of a public relations battle. And nothing is worse for PR than an oil spill, except perhaps one that links back to the same Alberta tar sands.