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Bitumen, ‘Dilbit’ and Pipelines – Just the Facts, Please

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 22, 2012

Kudos to Oil Sands Fact Check for its efforts to keep the public discussion of energy from Canadian oil sands grounded in fact. They’ve just linked to a fact sheet that debunks a number of myths and falsehoods about oil sands and the pipelines that deliver Canadian crude to U.S. refineries.

These facts are timely, given a New York Times op-ed this week that’s fairly representative of the attacks on this abundant energy resource – depicting oil sands crude as uniquely dangerous and dirty and the pipeline systems that bring it to market as untrustworthy. Facts, please.

Bitumen – The crude derived from oil sands is called bitumen. It’s heavy and sour, meaning it has high sulfur content. In its raw form it’s too thick to flow through a pipeline. So after sand and water are centrifuged out, it’s mixed with diluents – usually natural gas condensate, naphtha or a mix of other light hydrocarbons – so it can go through the pipeline as diluted bitumen or “dilbit.”

Dilbit Corrosiveness – It’s no more corrosive than other heavy crude oils, like those produced in Venezuela, Mexico and California that have been transported via pipeline for decades. The fact sheet:

"The Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle) developed a pipeline oil comparison index (POCI) assessing seven types of diluted bitumen from Canada against heavy sour crudes from Canada, Mexico, and Colombia. Corrosivity statistics of several types of diluted bitumen derived from the Canadian oil sands were compared against those of many other crude oils by Battelle … Six of the seven Canadian diluted bitumen crudes had a lower corrosivity than a blend of Western Canadian Blend, a conventional crude. All seven of the Canadian diluted bitumen crudes had a lower corrosivity than Mexican Maya crude and Colombian crude from the Rubiales Oil Field, which have been transported by U.S. pipelines for more than 40 years."

Quality Control – Like other crudes, dilbit has to meet quality standards for sediment and water content set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Pipeline operators are required to take samples of incoming batches before shipping them. They also take samples during transit. The fact sheet notes that federal pipeline regulations require:

"…that pipeline operators have a corrosion management program in place for their pipelines. This includes consideration of the use of corrosion inhibitors and cleaning pigs to reduce the likelihood of internal corrosion in pipelines."

The Safety Record – Dilbit has been transported safely for more than 25 years. U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration accident reports since 2002 show zero internal corrosion-related releases from pipelines carrying dilbit. (As well, there are no known examples before 2002 of corrosion-caused failures on U.S. pipelines carrying dilbit.) Oil sands and pipeline opponents point to a 2010 release near Kalamazoo, Mich., but that resulted from external corrosion under disbonded coating. The accident had nothing to do with what was inside the pipe.

The fact sheet contains additional information worth digesting. Key to understand is that dilbit transport via pipeline isn’t new, dilbit isn’t some Frankenstein-like product and lots of care goes into shipping it. Also, pipelines are expensive, so they’re built to last a long time, and they’re built not to leak. Consider: It simply makes no sense for a company to invest billions in a project and then risk that investment by running a product through it that would cause it to fail.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.