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It’s easy, in a world of constant information and change, to lose sight of the things that are right in front of our faces. For instance, there is so much news about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project that people don’t pay attention to the pipelines that we already have in place, many of which are nearly 50 years old.

Canadian oil giant, Enbridge, is currently proposing it’s largest pipeline replacement project, $7 billion dollars, to replace the Line 3 pipeline that runs from Edmonton, Alberta, across Minnesota, and on to Superior Wisconsin. Their reasoning for replacing the pipelines is sound; in that the pipeline dates back to the mid-to-late 1960’s and requires $1.1 in annual maintenance. As these pipes age, they crack and leak, so at face value this seems like a good deal for everyone. Enbridge saves money on maintenance moving forward, and there is less chance for environmental impacts.

Not Quite.

I’m all in favor for an oil company stepping up to try to be proactive about preventing oil spills like the 2010 pipeline spill that dumped over 1 million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River system. On the other hand, I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s a coincidence that one of the major aspects of the pipeline project is to widen the existing pipe. Currently the Line 3 pipeline moves 390,000 barrels of light crude oil a day, but the expansion plans to double that. The expansion will also make the pipeline capable of carrying tar sands or “heavy” crude. This makes the Line 3 pipeline a “mixed service” line, and Enbridge’s own CEO said ,“my lean would be more towards the heavier side, but it will carry both.”

Which is convenient for Enbridge, considering that a pipeline built on US soil to carry tar sands needs a Presidential permit, and they already have one for the existing pipeline. Because the project is classified as “maintenance”, the existing Presidential permit holds up.

Seeing the Picture Here?

Enbridge is stepping up to replace 50-year old pipes right at a time when tar sands oil production is ramping up to their highest levels ever. The Keystone XL pipeline project is harshly opposed across the country because of the volatility of transporting tar sands, yet Enbridge already has a pipeline in place that can skirt most of the regulatory processes in place under the guise of maintenance.

Aside from the sketchy nature of the project, let’s talk about the pipe itself. Pipelines built in the 1960’s, much like everything built in the 1960’s, were coated with asbestos to prevent corrosion. As the old sections of pipeline are cut out and removed, the potential for oil-laden asbestos tar contaminations skyrocket. I can’t find anything about what will happen to the old pipeline materials, so as far as I can tell, they will just leave the old rusting pipe where they cut it.

As much noise is made about the proposed Keystone XL project, let’s keep our eyes open for more of these “maintenance” projects like Line 3 and others, as to not let them slip under the radar.