The Midwest’s pipelines and refineries are in the process of a multibillion-dollar expansion. The dramatic increase in capacity comes in response to the Canadian oil boom in Northern Alberta, where the vast expanses of the Athabaskan oil sands have become a profitable source of crude after dramatic price increases and technological advances. But pipelines can be a hidden danger, as demonstrated Wednesday when a fire erupted on the Lakehead Pipeline near Clearbrook, Minn. Enbridge Inc., which owns and operates the pipeline, stated that the accident occurred during scheduled maintenance activity and confirmed that two Enbridge employees were killed.
Pipelines are often cited as the safest and most effective means of transporting liquid fuels, but when incidents occur they often do so with dramatic results.
On June 27, 2006, near Little Falls, Minn., approximately 152,000 gallons of petroleum spilled from an underground rupture in the Minnesota Pipeline, which is owned and operated by Koch Petroleum. According to a report by Barr Engineering, 4.7 acres of wetland and 5.69 acres of upland were impacted by the spill. Some 30,000 yards of contaminated earth were hauled to the Morrison County Landfill, which added an additional plastic liner to its existing compact clay liner to accommodate the petroleum-soaked dirt. Additionally, 400,000 gallons of water and oil were transferred back to the Little Falls pumping station for reprocessing.
The Lakehead Pipeline is one of the largest in the world, carrying 1.4 million barrels of crude every day from Redwater, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., and other points in the system. The Clearbrook terminal is a major junction point on the Lakehead Pipeline, connecting with the Minnesota Pipeline, which runs about 200 miles south to the Rosemount Refinery south of the Twin Cities.
In 2005, maritime writer and photographer Pat Lipinski wrote about the pipeline’s construction for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority’s North Star Port Magazine.
At the time of its construction, the pipeline was hailed as a great engineering achievement. Construction began in the summer of 1950, quickly compiling facts and figures to certify its claim to greatness. More than 1,500 men were employed, laying successive sections of 20-inch, 16-inch and 18-inch pipe across 1,000-plus miles of provincial and state property in a scant 150 days.
Today, Enbridge’s expansion projects demonstrate how dramatically times have changed:
Southern Lights, a liquid petroleum pipeline from Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota to transport light hydrocarbons, or “diluents,” to the Canadian oil sands area of Alberta. The project also involves the construction of a 20-inch crude oil pipeline from Cromer, Manitoba, to Clearbrook to replace the capacity of an existing Enbridge pipeline that will be reversed to transport diluent.
Alberta Clipper, a new crude oil pipeline from Alberta to Superior to increase capacity of the Enbridge system by 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) and later be expandable up to 800,000 bpd.
Southern Access, an expansion and extension of Enbridge’s existing pipeline system, including pump station modifications in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and new pipeline in Wisconsin and Illinois, to increase crude oil capacity to Midwest refineries and beyond.
Enbridge isn’t alone. Koch Petroleum, which owns the Rosemount Refinery in addition to Minnesota Pipeline, successfully fought to construct a second pipeline, called MinnCan. MinnCan is a 24-inch pipeline running 295 miles from Clearbrook to Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, which is undergoing a $1 billion expansion. The new line will share the original Minnesota Pipeline route for 119 miles, but diverge for the next 176 miles while circling the Twin Cities to the east and south.
In Superior, Murphy Oil is working on a $6 billion expansion. BP is undertaking a $3 billion expansion in Whiting, Ind. And it’s all because of 12,000 square miles of a mixture of a hardened crude oil called bitumen, sand, and water in northern Alberta. These oil sands are so massive that only the most economically recoverable crude available, 10 percent of a total estimated 175,000 billion barrels in the sands, has made Canada second in the world only to Saudi Arabia in terms of proven oil reserves. China and India have both signed billion-dollar export agreements, but Minnesota has its very own straw.
Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar is chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which sets federal regulations for the nation’s pipelines, and co-sponsor of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2006. Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said that while the bill was signed into law in December of last year, “it is probably too soon for all of the requirements to be in effect yet.” Schadl added that Oberstar “will be keeping a close eye on this investigation to determine if congress needs to take additional action.”