Tar Sands Disaster?

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2012

For what it's worth, the director of the Governor's Energy Office, Ken Fletcher, says the LePage administration has yet to formulate a position on the issue.


Because future plans are so nebulous (or, some would argue, non-existent) it's hard to find a foothold for opposition beyond demonstrations and warning cries. Still, should Enbridge and the PMPL formally renew the project, there are two potential ways to stop tar sands oil from coming through New England.

The first is a unique law — Vermont's Act 250, the Land Use and Development Act — that subjects a proposed development project to 10 criteria that seek to safeguard quality of place, such as environmental concerns, and continuity with municipal plans. (Part of Vermont's jealous protection of its character and environment, it is so strong and wide-ranging that it has even been used to control the paint colors of McDonald's restaurants!)

Because Act 250 was passed in 1970, almost 30 years after the pipeline was constructed, the pipeline has never been reviewed under the 10 criteria. However, environmentalists hold that shifting the contents of the system from conventional crude oil to tar sands oil would be a "substantial change in use," says National Wildlife Federation lawyer Jim Murphy, who is based in Vermont. "It's a change in substance going through the pipeline," he says. "Our feeling is that going forward the project should be subjected to Act 250 review."

Given tar sands' many environmental implications, it's possible that pipeline reversal could be stymied in this way.

Another option is to force the pipeline company to seek a new presidential permit for the project, like the one TransCanada sought for Keystone XL. The pipeline has such a permit for its current use, and back in 2008, the State Department indicated in a letter to the pipeline company that the existing permit would cover a reversal in flow. However, that letter made no distinction between tar sands and conventional oil. Again, the environmentalists believe that "those are different products with different sets of concerns," as Murphy puts it.

Pushing for a new or amended presidential permit would require that the State Department consider whether reversing the pipeline to accommodate tar sands oil would be in the national interest. It would also prompt a comprehensive environmental impact study.

There's one last tactic that would be more symbolic than legally binding, yet still could influence public perception. The Sierra Club, the NRDC, Environment Maine, and the Maine chapter of 350.org are encouraging towns and cities to consider local resolutions that voice opposition or at least serious concern about tar sands oil passing through their borders.

Several towns in Canada have already issued such resolutions — including Potton, Quebec, just a few minutes north of Dunham. Some Maine officials have indicated interest in similar tactics.

"We are going to aggressively engage policymakers," Murphy says. "And use whatever tools we legally can to try to make sure that the Northeast does not become a market or a pass-through for tar sands."


Although the Enbridge/Portland Montreal Pipe Line scenario is one of the most realistic ways to envision tar sands oil coming through Maine, there are other potential routes as well.

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