Tuesday, March 29, 2016

3 years after Mayflower, STILL confusion about Dilbit & Crude Oil!

Forgive the cross post.
This is also being published to my blog: http://WilliamAHuston.blogspot.com

Today is the 3 year anniversary of the Mayflower Arkansas "Pegasus" Pipeline spill. (The pipeline is operated by Exxon Mobil)

No celebrations here.

I am sending this quick note because there is still
apparently lots of confusion about the nature of these terms:

* Tar Sands -- refers to a geological formation, NOT a shippable product
* Bitumen -- aka, Pitch, Asphalt, Tar, a very heavy hydrocarbon being mined in the Alberta Tar Sands. It is a semi-solid and resembles coal.

And the most important distinction between

* Oil, Crude Oil, Heavy Crude etc.  -- A natural product, a slippery liquid, and
* Diluted Bitumen or Dilbit -- a relatively new, SYNTHETIC, man-made, extreme-tech, Franken Fuel, never before seen on Planet Earth.

Including a post today from Pipeline Safety Trust, and also recently on email lists regarding the Pilgrim Pipeline from some very senior people.

My background:

in 2003, I became obsessed with the Mayflower disaster.  I don't know why.  Something about the photos and videos. I have had friends in the Little Rock area and felt a connection to the place.

I was already getting interested in pipelines and infrastructure and mapping due to the impacts of fracked-gas production near where I live.

I have done an immense amount of research into the accident.  When the event first happened, I tried to find a map of the Pegasus Pipeline. There was none online that was accurate. So I stayed up (for 24 hours! +4 pots
of coffee I think)  and created one. I used NPMS and built the map, 850 miles, though IL, MO, AR, TX, county by county.

One of the things I noticed right away was, what appeared to me,
a deliberate attempt by industry (and the mainstream media)
to confuse people about the facts about the contents of this pipeline.

(A brand new, synthetic, man-made, high tech, franken-fuel called Dilbit).
The industry and the press kept calling it an "oil spill" or "crude oil", "heavy crude" or "heavy oil".  Dilbit is none of these!

Re: this post by PST to facebook:


QUOTE: As of today it's been three years since crude oil flowed through the neighborhood in Mayflower Arkansas. Has there been any meaningful change? Still no better leak detection, still no automated valve requirements, still no verification of the fitness of old pipelines, still no better spill planning, still no one looking at health effects. ENDQUOTE

No, it wasn't "crude oil", it was Dilbit, "Diluted Bitumen". There are very important distinctions. While many in the mainstream media got this wrong, PST should know better and should be reporting this correctly so the people can be informed.

What is being mined in Alberta Tar Sands IS NOT OIL. It is not anything like you grandfather's "crude", which is a complex mixture of a broad spectrum of hydrocarbons, from the lightest (methane, ethane, propane, butane), to the mids (kerosene, pentane, decane), to heavy oils (fuel oil, lubricating grease, waxes), to the heaviest (asphalt, tar, bitumen, pitch).

No, what they are mining is a very low-grade hydrocarbon, bitumen, which can be considered equivalent to the heaviest fractions of crude oil. Bitumen in raw form is a semi-solid like coal, and smashes with a hammer when struck. No one would look at a chunk of bitumen and think of it as "oil", which denotes a slippery liquid.

Bitumen/asphalt/pitch/tar is such a low-grade product, it was considered refinery waste. On many old refinery diagrams it is called "residuum" or "bottom's product". It is literally the dregs of hydrocarbons.

Now even this low grade substance can be chemically smashed at extremely high energy levels, broken down into smaller-chain hydrocarbons, and then recombined and fractionated into refined products. However, this can only be done, at great expense and energy inputs, at a very few refineries which have been specially equipped.

I have not found proper estimates of the EROEI (net energy returned on net energy invested) for e.g. gasoline made from Dilbit, but it is very low, approximating 1:1.  

Not only that, but the environmental costs of mining and refining bitumen are extremely high. The Alberta scar on the ancient Boreal Forest, including tailing ponds hundreds of square miles, is so large, you can see it from space. There are also the "Great Sulfur Pyramids", which are as large as the pyramids of Egypt.


Raw bitumen cannot be shipped in a pipeline. So the industry came up with is to dilute it with condensate, aka, Natural Gas Liquids (some of the lightest hydrocarbons), hence "Dilbit".

Again, Dilbit is chemically very different from natural crude oil, and must be shipped to special refineries via pipeline or rail.

Dilbit pipelines have failed, both in Canada and the US at very high rates. So much so that there have been studies commissioned to see if it is more corrosive than traditional crude.

Dilbit spills are extraordinarily difficult to clean up, since when it hits water, it separates. The NGLs float, and the bitumen sinks.

Dilbit transportation  is also regulated differently, since Dilbit IS NOT crude, it is exempt from a tax levied on crude oil that is used to clean up spills.

All of these points are important for people to understand, since Dilbit is (last checked) now around 15% of all US refinery inputs, and growing.

If people understand all of this, they might ask the question: Why is it that 15% of all refined products begins as a low-grade hydrocarbon dregs, which can only be transformed into refined products at extremely high costs,  in every sense: in terms of capital costs, energy inputs, and environmental costs?

So I hope PST corrects this very serious error. Thanks.



PS: Here are some of the reasons why I fell the making the distinction between Dilbit and any variation of the word "Oil" or "Crude" is important, from the Talk page of the Wikipedia article on the Mayflower Arkansas Oil Spill.

Dilbit is not oil, it
is not crude oil. There are many important distinctions, including,
  •  chemistry
  •  refining
  •  natural gas and NGL (condensate) consumption, additional infrastructure required, pipelines, compressors, etc.
  •  area-intensive mining, inc. massive Boreal Forest destruction, massive tailings ponds, the "Great Sulfur Pyramids" at the Suncor Upgrader in Ft. McMurray
  •  potential corrosivity distinction
  •  spill mechanics and cleanup
  •  regulation distinction
  •  taxation (Dilbut exempt from cleanup fund--- because dilbit is not oil!
  •  energy-intensive mining/refining (EROEI discussion)
  •  capital-intensive refining
  • Fire/Explosion properties during transport
And I would also add,
  • The apparent intentional effort to mislead the public about these important distinctions, including in the mainstream media, and perhaps also on Wikipedia itself, such as Title of this article refers to an "oil spill", The article on "Tar Sands" is titled "Oil Sands".
As an online encyclopedia, we need to strive for accuracy WP:V and also maintain a neutral point of view WP:NPOV. I am adding Controversial tag, to indicate my question about both Accuracy, and NPOV, and tagging the word "oil" as Disputed. Thanks


Here are some of the very few outlets that got the distinction correct:

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