Tightening Oil Spill Protections

Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT's Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee that issued recommendations on strengthening regulations and planning for pipeline spills of the heavy Canadian crude oil known as oil sand.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) should strengthen both regulations and planning to better prepare for accidental spills of diluted bitumen, a type of heavy Canadian crude oil, from pipelines, according to a report released today from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, is a member of the committee that came up with the recommendations and an author of the report.

“Existing regulations for transporting oil in pipelines do not adequately address contingency planning for spills of diluted bitumen. For example, pipeline operators are not currently required to name the specific oils being transported, which hinders response,” Boufadel said, adding, “The committee recommends that a series of modifications be made to the regulations to address the gaps in planning.”

Bitumen, a heavy and dense crude oil extracted from tar sands in Canada and mixed with lighter oils before it is transported through pipelines, has been piped through the U.S. for more than four decades. The amount has increased recently, however, as a result of improved extraction technologies and production and exportation by Canada. Both new and existing pipelines, including the Keystone XL pipeline, have been proposed and developed in some cases to accommodate the increased production.

The committee said further that bitumen has properties that warrant special preparations to limit environmental damage. While it behaves similarly to other crude oils immediately following a spill, exposure to the environment induces rapid physical and chemical changes known as “weathering” that are unique to diluted bitumen. Within days, diluted bitumen starts to turn into a heavy, viscous, sediment-laden residue that cannot easily be recovered using traditional response techniques. The residue has a strong tendency to adhere to surfaces, and it poses particular challenges if it is spilled into a body of water, because the residues can submerge or sink to the bottom.

“We’ve seen that bitumen can smother plants and other organisms, including filter feeders such as krill and fish. It also doesn’t biodegrade as quickly as other oils; many of its constituents linger longer in the environment, binding to sediments and sinking to the bottom, while other oils tend to stay on the surface,” Boufadel said, adding, however, that oil sand is not as soluble in water as other oils, “and thus its acute toxicity might not be as strong as other oils.”

A professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in the impact of oil spills on coastal regions, Boufadel has spent several years studying the residual effects of an oil sand spill from a pipeline in Marshall, Michigan that ruptured during a storm in 2010, spilling a million gallons of oil in the Kalamazoo River.

“Our team can predict how the oil interacts with sediments when freshly spilled into the environment and, as it ages, where its properties change,” he noted. “We can predict how the oil breaks down due to the elements over time, and the probable size of the oil droplets in the environment.”

The report was commissioned last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which asked the committee to characterize bitumen’s behavior following a spill, research its impacts on the environment and recommend strategies for responding to spills, including possible new technologies.

"Canadian oil sand is increasingly available to world markets, including the U.S.,” Boufadel said. “But at this point we have less experience with it than other crude oils, and so responding to spills is a challenge.”

Last year, a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but fell a vote short in the Senate. Proponents vowed to bring the bill up again in the following legislative session, although the Obama administration said it will reject it.

Since its establishment in 2012, the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection has received several major grants from the federal government, as well as international institutions and agencies, to investigate oil behaviors in the environment. Boufadel provided technical analyses and remedial strategies in response to the two largest oil spills in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills.

Tracey Regan