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Photo credit: Credit: Alyssa Martinez / Drew Crownover

By now, you likely already know that 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen swamped an Arkansas suburban subdivision over a week ago, caused the evacuation of 22 homes, oiled some ducks and splashed across the front pages of all social media sites. We’ve seen the photos, we’ve watched the video (over 3 million views!), and most of us have moved on. (Although these disgusting photos and this set of videos just surfaced which might spark some fresh concern.)

Since we tend to think of oil spills on a grandiose and massive scale – millions of gallons of crude pouring from the Exxon Valdez into the pristine Alaskan coastline, the Hawaii-sized Persian Gulf slick, the iconic image of the flaming sea of the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo blowout – the Mayflower spill, with a measly 45 minutes of flow and a few slicked lawns seems hardly newsworthy. Truth is, the relative impact of this little blunder compared to the estimated 1.3 million tons per year (conservative estimate) of petroleum released into the marine environment alone is quite literally an almost insignificant drop in the proverbial bucket/sea.
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Photo credit: Alyssa Martinez / Drew Crownover / Annie Dill / Alex Shahrokhi
If the Arkansas spill is upsetting not for its relative scale, it might be for its proximity to…well, where we live. Last week I spoke with someone who was at the site of the spill the day after the initial line break, and I asked what it was like out there. Here’s what he said (to be read in an Arkansan accent): "There is oil everywhere in the bad areas. It’s all in the water now, and you can’t see that. The area where the leak happened was very nasty, it was everywhere. I didn’t get there ‘till Sunday, so it had a day and half to seep out. And then it rained, so it dissipated partially. I know a guy who lives there and he is staying with his parents, they’ve all evacuated.” When an otherwise invisible and unnoticed buried pipeline turns a McNeighborhood in Anytown, USA into a tar pit, people notice.
You don’t hear many people calling this “oil” what it really is. While it’s been described as Wabasca Heavy crude, “heavy crude” isn’t exactly the whole story. Known in industry as “dilbit,” the Mayflower pipeline was actually carrying diluted bitumen. Bitumen was in the not-to-distant past considered garbage crude.
As the light, sweet crude we know and love has been depleted, bitumen has become increasingly attractive, prices have soared, and pipelines have been built to transport it from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Texas. To get the bitumen (which has the consistency of peanut butter at room temperature) through pipelines, chemicals are added to dilute the nasty stuff into something far nastier. Enter dilbit, which separates into its constituent parts when it hits water and begins to sink (while “regular” oil floats) as the diluents dissipate, creating underwater mire that can’t be cleaned up with methods we have easily at our disposal.
Even worse – since the spill was technically not “oil” by government standards, Exxon is, through a ludicrous legal exemption, getting out of paying for cleanup. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund apparently doesn’t cover diluted bitumen, so Exxon is off the hook. As stated by Oil Change International’s David Turnbull, “Exxon is about to cash in on the ‘please spill tar sands oil in my kid’s playground’ subsidy.”
With a last ironic face-slap, days after the Mayflower spill as gritty low-grade crude was still flowing past the picket fences, Exxon wins a national safety award for their “comprehensive commitment to safety excellence.” No mention, whatsoever, was made of the Arkansas fiasco.
Between the media access block, imposition of a no-fly zone over the spill site, blatant shirking of financial responsibility, inadequate regulation and cleanup capacity for tar sands’ bitumen and the glimpse of potential risks this little spill offered (the Arkansas pipeline has just a tenth of the carrying capacity that Keystone would have), you’d hope that we could take a clue from this minor predictive event and take informed action against the building of the massive Keystone XL pipeline that will run from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, crossing over one of the world’s largest aquifers, farmland and sensitive wildlife habitat.
The duck-killing Pegasus pipeline should be the nail in the coffin for the Keystone XL pipeline, but chances are, it will make its way through the hype machine and soon be forgotten by US media and the woefully myopic public eye, just like all of our flailing, oil-covered media darlings.