The federal government is studying whether diluted bitumen oil (dilbit) is more hazardous than conventional crude oil.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) indicated in May that it will examine the issue.
"As a part of our 2014 budget, there was a requirement that we do a further study to evaluate whether dilbit spills are more risky than spills of other crudes," said PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, per Bloomberg. "We are in the process of finalizing a contract with the National Academy of Sciences to do that study."
The dangers of dilbit factor into the contentious debate over the partially-finished Keystone XL pipeline, "a project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels per day of dilbit from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. [The project] still lacks the required presidential permit for the segment stretching from the U.S.-Canada border through Nebraska," the report said.
The potential for water contamination is a major concern in the Keystone pipeline debate. "The pipeline would run about 5 to 8 feet below the Nebraska topsoil, but on top of the Ogallala Aquifer which provides nearly 2 million people with drinking water across eight states," CBS News reported.
"The oil from the tar sands in Canada is too thick to flow through pipelines so it has to be diluted with benzene and other chemicals linked to cancer."
TransCanada, the energy company backing the plan, has promised to monitor and protect water systems if the project moves forward.
Dilbit is controversial in the environmental and health communities. Some states have already faced enormous consequences as a result of dilbit spills.
"The disastrous effects of those spills—and fear that future spills could foul aquifers and vital waterways—have inflamed opposition to dilbit pipelines across the country," the Bloomberg report said.
In Michigan, a million gallons of dilbit spilled into the Kalamazoo River four years ago.
"After the dilbit gushed into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy bitumen sank to the river bottom, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated, creating a foul smell that lingered for days. People reported headaches, dizziness and nausea," the New York Times reported.
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Image credit: "Fairbanks - Trans-Alaska Pipeline," roger4336 © 1997, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en
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