Tar Sands Disaster?

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2012

This means that within two years, a system of pipes could feasibly transport dilbit from the Alberta tar sands fields all the way to Montreal.

Meanwhile, in Dunham, Quebec — less than 10 miles from the border between Canada and the United States — we find another piece of the puzzle: a pumping station.

Earlier this year, a Canadian court denied Montreal Pipe Line Limited's request to build a new pumping station in Dunham. The station, which would take up five acres in the birthplace of Quebec's first vineyards ("No Oil in Our Wine" is the town's rally cry), is a crucial component of pipeline reversal; the topography in the region requires that oil be given an extra boost if it is to flow successfully southeast.

"The pumping station is critical," says Shelley Kath, a Canadian lawyer and senior consultant working with the Natural Resources Defense Council on issues related to high-carbon fuels. "You can't reverse the pipeline without building a new pumping station."

But the court's decision doesn't mean that environmentalists can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to convoluted Canadian bureaucratic proceedings, the company will have another chance to submit its application; just last month, a local commission indicated that it will reconsider the pumping station proposal.

"There are a number of signs that the old Trailbreaker project has legs," Kath says. "If we just sit back and wait for all the applications to be out there, it's too late." There may be opportunities for public comment down the line (it's unclear what government agencies would need to sign off on pipe-reversal), but activists are mobilizing now to maximize impact if the time comes. Or, as Kath puts it, so that they're not "playing catch up" if their worst-case scenario appears.

It's important to note that the major parties to this proposal, including Enbridge and the Portland Montreal Pipe Line company, deny that anything like the Trailbreaker project is currently on the table.

"In response to inquiries we received in recent weeks, we want to let our communities know that Portland Pipe Line Corporation and Montreal Pipe Line Limited (PMPL) do not currently have an active project associated with moving Western Canadian crudes in an easterly flow direction through our pipelines," the company said in a written statement posted to its website in February.

Reached last week, Portland Pipe Line spokesman Ted O'Meara reaffirmed that position: "Nothing's changed. There's no active project."

DEP spokeswoman DePoy-Warren says the department has fielded many questions on this topic over the past year, but hasn't heard anything from the Portland Pipe Line Company itself.

And in a 2011 letter to Canada's NEB, Enbridge insisted that the Line 9 reversals were "not in any way a manifestation of the former Trailbreaker Project."

But that's not enough to convince everyone. (Not to mention that it's not the only way that tar sands oil could come through Maine. See sidebar, "Rail, or road?")

"Why would you reverse the [Line 9] pipeline unless you're going to move beyond Montreal?" Brand asks. (And why would you propose a new pumping station if you weren't going to reverse the flow?) "The purpose of the denials is to avoid heightening public concern and regulatory scrutiny."

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SPILLS THAT KILL

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