Surprise! Dilbit really IS different!

The National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine this week recommended substantial changes in the rules under which pipeline spill response plans are reviewed and approved, as well as improvements in the type of information made available about various types of crude oil being transported in pipelines. These recommendations were included in the Academies’ second report on the risks of transportation of diluted bitumen by pipeline. Diluted bitumen is one name[1] for the product created when bitumen extracted from the Canadian tar sands is mixed with enough lower viscosity diluent to allow it to be pumped through pipelines.


When the federal pipeline program was reauthorized in 2012, Congress included in the bill a directive to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) to undertake a study of whether there were increased risks of failure in pipelines carrying dilbit. Although risks are normally considered to be of two parts (probability and consequences), the first NAS study commissioned by PHMSA examined only the question of whether the probability of a failure was higher for a pipeline carrying dilbit. You can find that report here. Congress in 2014 further directed PHMSA to “investigate whether the spill properties of diluted bitumen differ sufficiently from those of other liquid petroleum products to warrant modifications of spill response plans, spill preparedness, or clean-up regulations.” The new report is now here. It is long and detailed and thorough. Spoiler alert: Dilbit does indeed behave differently, and in ways that make cleanup harder and less successful. As a result, the report recommends substantial changes in spill planning for pipelines carrying dilbit.


Here is a short version of some of the other recommendations for changes in the laws and regulations:


Oil Spill Response Planning:

  • Require the plan to identify all types of crude carried by the pipeline by industry standard name, e.g. Cold Lake Blend, and to include Safety Data Sheets for each named crude. SDS sheets should include spill properties as well as personal safety information.
  • Plans should identify all areas most sensitive to spills of dilbit, including water bodies at risk.
  • Plans must detail operator response activities and response resources to mitigate a spill of dilbit.
  • PHMSA must conduct reviews of both the completeness and the adequacy of spill response plans, rather than maintaining their current checklist approach to approving plans. Require PHMSA to consult with USEPA and USCG to obtain input on whether plans are adequate for spills of dilbit.
  • Require operators to post on their websites and submit to PHMSA annual reports of the volumes of the various types of crude oil transmitted by segments of its pipelines.


Oil Spill Response


  • Response agencies and the oil and pipeline industry should support development of effective techniques for detection containment and recovery of submerged and sunken oils.
  • Response agencies should all use the same nomenclature for crude oils.


USCG oil Classification system


  • The Coast Guard should revise its classification system to recognize dilbit as a potentially non-floating oil after evaporation of the diluent. The revisions should be incorporated into EPA and PHMSA planning regulations.


Improved Coordination


  • PHMSA, and federal, state and local response agencies should better coordinate and share lessons to improve spill planning and response. These agencies should jointly conduct announced and unannounced exercises for spills of dilbit. [And in our opinion, all other liquids subject to spill planning rules!]


Research priorities


  • The report lists several broad areas the need substantial additional research: transport and fate of dilbit in the environment; ecological and human health risks of weathered dilbit; detection and quantification of submerged and sunken oil; techniques to intercept and recover submerged oil on the move; alternatives to dredging; collaboration with and access to spill sites for scientists outside the formal response framework.


In response to media requests for response to the report, PHMSA prepared a list of initial tasks it intends to undertake in response to the report, and also indicated that the agency would continue its review of the detailed findings of the study and look for additional steps that it could take. Here is PHMSA’s list of initial tasks:


  • develop and publish an Advisory Bulletin highlighting the findings of the study and suggest voluntary improvements that onshore oil pipeline operators should make to their oil spill response plans to address plan improvement recommendations.
  • work with the National Response Team (NRT) and the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR) to advance the recommendations included in the report.
  • continue to work with the American Petroleum Institute’s Spill Advisory Committee, Spill Control Association of America, and other industry organizations to improve oil spill response planning and preparedness.
  • host a public workshop in the spring of 2016 to solicit input from interested parties, government agencies and members of the public on how it can improve and enhance 49 CFR Part 194 and address the NAS recommendations.


Succeeding in changing the Part 194 regulations to incorporate these recommendations and changing the internal agency practices and culture around spill planning and plan reviews will be no easy feat. The National Transportation Safety Administration recommended in its 2011 report on the 2010 dilbit spill in Marshall, Michigan that the Secretary of Transportation conduct an audit of PHMSA’s spill response plan program. While that audit has begun, it has not yet been completed or released to the public. This NAS study identifies a number of major corrections that are needed specific to improving plans that relate to potential spills of dilbit. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 4 years to enact these recommendations.


[1] Diluted bitumen is also sometimes referred to as dilbit, tar sands oil, oil sands oil, or is identified by the geographic area of its source, e.g. Cold Lake Blend. The NAS recommends the use of the geographic blend names by all agencies.