Tar Sands Disaster?

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2012

Back in 2008, the Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge (TransCanada's rival), which owns and operates pipelines that transport more than 730 million barrels of petroleum products per year, proposed a project called Trailbreaker. That plan would have created a route along existing pipelines to bring oil western Canada all the way to Montreal, then down through New England to Portland, where it would be loaded onto tankers and taken overseas or to refineries on the East and Gulf Coast.

It was widely understood that Trailbreaker would help link tar sands fields to expanded markets. Doing so would have ostensibly given Canada a chance to capitalize on its sizeable oil supplies, rather than depending on imported crude oil.

The project called for the reversal of the flow of oil in of several chunks of pipeline, including Enbridge's "Line 9," which runs between key pumping stations in Canada, as well a separately owned pipeline between Montreal and South Portland. This 236-mile line is owned by the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, which has its corporate headquarters in South Portland and is itself two separate bodies: the Portland Pipe Line Corporation and Montreal Pipe Line Limited (there is no corporate relationship between Enbridge and the PMPL). The PMPL line, built in the early 1940s, currently transports imported conventional crude oil, which comes in on tanker ships, from Portland to Montreal for refining.

Reversing the flow to accommodate dilbit would require more pressure and higher temperatures within this 70-year-old pipeline.

In 2009 and 2010, the Portland Pipe Line Corporation made several indications that it was fully on board with pipe-reversal. In addition to published statements in the media, these included applying for an air-emissions license that was issued in draft form by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (the application was withdrawn in 2011), and seeking renewal of its Marine Oil Terminal Facility License. PPLC needed the license to keep operating as usual, but the summary section of its application stated that the company was considering a change to its operations to reverse pipeline flow. "Meetings with the PPLC prior to 2010 indicated that . . . storage at the terminal would be no different [if oil was coming in from Canada] than storing oil delivered by tanker vessel to the terminal," says Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine DEP.

However, Trailbreaker never came to be. "That project was put on hold in 2009 due to lack of commercial support and is no longer being pursued by Enbridge," according to the company's website.

Or is it? Environmentalists believe this is a zombie proposal, back from the dead. Only this time, in response to greater public awareness and skepticism about tar sands, Enbridge is being even cagier.

The company has already sought — and gained — Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) approval for "Line 9 Reversal Phase 1." That section of pipeline (Line 9A) will now pump oil eastbound from Sarnia, Ontario, to the Westover oil terminal near Hamilton, Ontario. At present, the pipeline is only allowed to carry light crude oil; for heavier materials like dilbit, Enbridge will need to go back before the NEB.

Also, Enbridge is seeking to reverse the flow between Westover and Montreal (Line 9B) "to access Quebec refining markets." Enbridge anticipates submitting its full application for this project in the fall, according to company spokeswoman Jennifer Varey, and hopes to begin operation of the reversed Line 9B in the spring of 2014.

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