Tar Sands Disaster?

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2012

Recent significant upgrades to the Irving oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick (just past the Maine border on the Bay of Fundy) suggest that tar sands oil could head in that direction for further processing.

Just look at a map: Draw a straight line from Montreal to Saint John, and it's impossible not to wonder if the controversial East-West Hhighway proposal has something to do with oil. While the man behind the Northern Maine road, Peter Vigue, has denied that a pipeline could be part of his highway-slash-utility corridor, it's reasonable to think that oil companies — with whom Vigue has longtime connections through his construction corporation Cianbro — would be enticed by a more direct route to Saint John.

In June, the Portland Press Herald reported that trains were taking "test quantities of tar sands" across Maine to the Irving refinery, which has substantially increased its unloading and dilbit-refining capacity. Both the Pan Am and Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic railway companies have indicated that they are interested in shipping more oil across the state; the Association of American Railroads reports the number of rail tankers carrying crude oil and petroleum products in the United States increased more than 35 percent during the first six months of the year when compared with 2011. Moving product by rail is cheaper than shipping it by sea, but more expensive than going through pipelines. Stay tuned.

And don't forget about Keystone XL architect TransCanada, which is also looking into ways to expand its eastern market. According to the Canadian Press, a wire service serving our neighbors to the north, TransCanada is "looking at converting its gas mainline, which is running on part-empty, to oil service." Presumably it would seek East Coast destinations for this oil.

But in the words of Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author who founded the grassroots climate change campaign 350.org and spoke at the Burlington rally, "we are really going to stop this in its tracks."

"Against all odds, at least for a little while, we managed to win," he said, referring to last year's policy brawl over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. "These guys will have no idea what they've bitten off if they try to build this across New England."

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