API is examining dilbit’s environmental impacts when released

The American Petroleum Institute is studying the properties of diluted bitumen (dilbit) and expects to develop findings about how oil sands crude behaves when it is accidentally released, API Pipeline Director Peter Lidiak told a National Academies hearing on the same subject.

The American Petroleum Institute is studying the properties of diluted bitumen (dilbit) and expects to develop findings about how oil sands crude behaves when it is accidentally released, API Pipeline Director Peter Lidiak told a National Academies hearing on the same subject.

“There’s nothing very surprising. It’s similar to other types of crude oil in many ways,” he said during NA’s Chemical Sciences and Technology Board’s first day of hearings discussing dilbit’s environmental effects on Mar. 9. The hearings were scheduled to continue the next day.

Indications are that the mixture does not separate into diluent and bitumen once it is released as some people believe, the most rapid evaporation occurs in the first few hours, and recovery and containment techniques are similar to those for other types of crude, Lidiak said.

Oil sands crude is unlikely to sink if it enters water, Lidiak said. It might appear to do so initially in turbulent streams and rivers but soon returns to the surface, he said. “Once any oil leaves a pipeline, it begins to change quickly. Heavy and medium-grade crudes are still lighter than water,” Lidiak said. “Operators have developed an extensive leak detection technology and methodology.”

This is the second investigation of dilbit’s environmental impacts by NA’s National Research Council. It was launched in December (OGJ Online, Dec. 5, 2014) after the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said new questions emerged following findings in 2013 that dilbit poses no special risks to pipelines (OGJ Online, June 25, 2013).

“We have been moving dilbit for some time—basically, 40 years,” Lidiak said. “We spend a lot of time trying to prevent releases. Operators adhere to a host of industry standards and practices in addition to state and federal regulations. These overlay industry initiatives to improve assessments, management systems, leak detection programs, and emergency preparedness and response.”

Who matters in response

“The people on the ground are the most important,” said Tom Miesner, a former Conoco Pipe Line Co. president who has run Pipeline Knowledge & Development in Katy, Tex., for about 13 years. “They’re the ones who decide what to do. At Conoco, we had the capability to handle small leaks locally. If the situation moved to the highest tier, it would be managed from the pipeline control room at corporate headquarters in Houston.”

Asked how response teams are assembled, Miesner said they usually are a combination of company employees and contractors with predetermined equipment and workers. “Different pipelines operating in the same area often form a cooperative to have good local contractors available,” he explained. “Employees will be a combination of maintenance and operating personnel—basically, all the important people working along the pipeline.”

Pressure and flow rate are the biggest pipeline variables, he said. “We’re asking control room personnel to optimize operations and be able to respond quickly if there’s a problem,” Miesner said. “These can create contradictory demands that put pressure on them.”

Lidiak said response preparation begins with identifying which sites have the most risk. Tanks containing larger volumes of crude also are surrounded by extensive dikes and berms to contain leaks that pipelines lack, he noted.

Staging of response and cleanup supplies, gauging how long it takes to get personnel and equipment on-site, advance communications with first responders “so you’re not meeting for the first time,” and training and drills are all part of API Recommended Practice 1174, Lidiak said. “We’ve had a pretty good response so far. Certainly, first responders are showing interest,” he said.

But another speaker said oil spill studies need to take a wider view. Christopher M. Reddy, a marine chemistry and geochemistry senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said research has relied heavily on gas chromatographic modeling techniques that work in only about 30% of the cases.

“Maybe the other 70% is a dog environmentally and doesn’t matter,” Reddy said. “But in a [smartphone] society, we’re using 1980s cordless phone technology to analyze oil spills. It only gives us a little bit of a window shade opening. We need something more robust.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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