By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As ugly pictures of the grimy, tarry aftermath of the oil spill in Arkansas continue to emerge, ExxonMobil is calling “time out” on some of the media coverage.

The oil giant says the spill has wrongly been portrayed as involving tar sands oil or diluted bitumen. In a blog entitled Five Lies They’re Telling You About the Mayflower Pipeline Spill, Exxon says that the oil was not from tar sands but conventionally drilled Canadian oil.

“. . . The crude that spilled is Wabasca heavy oil and it’s from Alberta near the area where there is oil sands [tar sands] production. It’s produced by conventional production methods – in other words by drilling a well into the ground through which the oil flows – and diluted by a light oil to help it flow through the pipeline.”
Tar Sands Mayflower AR 2 ... EPA
If that’s the case, the media spin-up over this spill has gone over the top. Many groups are citing the Mayflower, AR, spill as an example of how dangerous it is to transport tar sands oil, because it is mixed with many chemicals and will corrode pipelines. If the oil had been tar sands, then the Mayflower spill would be an example of the risks posed by this type of fuel; raising questions about the safety of the controversial Keystone XL, which is under construction in Texas but still awaiting permits for northern legs that would complete the 1,700 mile pipeline from the tar sands region of Alberta to Houston.

So was it tars sands or diluted conventional oil that spilled in Arkansas? Let’s guess that Exxon knows its oil, and that it was heavy crude or “regular” oil.

Also a check of an EPA report from the weekend of the spill, corroborates Exxon’s point, referring to the oil as “Wabasca Heavy Crude.”

This heavy oil comes from Alberta, near where tar sands oil is mined, but it’s not tar sands oil.

I’m wondering how the word got started that the spill involved tar sands. Reporters who’re asking that question say  that officials initially referred to the oil as “dilbit,” which stands for diluted bitumen. Bitumen is the tarry, thick oil  that’s literally scraped from the earth in tar sands extraction. It is then diluted with chemicals so it’s more fluid and can be transported. Hence dil-bit.

Pipeline Network Map

Existing and planned oil pipelines.

The fact that the Keystone pipeline is much on the minds of climate activists also may have hastened a rush to judgment. Someone said dilbit, and pretty soon, in the absence of anyone correcting them, the Arkansas spill was placed in the tar sands disaster column. And the error was repeated as the blogs tumbled across social media. Even on this site, we referred to the spill as involving diluted bitumen after checking normally authoritative sources. Turns out these sources didn’t really know. We regret the misinformation.

Dil-bit or not, though, the Arkansas spill still stands as an example of what can happen when oil pipelines fail near populated areas. This event was too close for human comfort. As we look at the pipelines increasingly zigzagging the nation, it seems obvious that the joules in/joules out equation is changing. Fossil fuels are costing more and more to extract and convey; taking a toll on the land and water, while simultaneously setting us up for a fall when the oil runs out.

Tar Sands  - Nutria dead - Mayflower Spill -- Tar Sands Blockade photo

An “oiled” nutria, a small swamp mammal, killed in the Mayflower spill. (Photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

We’re playing an endgame without a good B plan, even though the technology to lift us out of the mire is available today in the form of solar panels, wind turbines and smart building. (Yes, it’s pretty much that simple; with a little more technology needed to bring the transportation sector up to speed.)

Mayflower, where we discovered what an oil spill looks like when we are the life forms caught in the mess, probably won’t be the only little neighborhood to win its own Wikipedia page as collateral damage in the oil endgame.

Let’s just hope that next time it’s not the Ogallala Aquifer that gets splattered with crude.

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