Even as gathering signs point to the inevitable construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline through middle America, tar-sands opponents convened in South Portland on Monday night to oppose the transport of that same viscous petroleum product through Maine.
Just last month, thousands of people (including several busloads of Mainers) marched in Washington DC, urging President Barack Obama to strike down TransCanada's revised Keystone XL proposal, which would pipe up to 830,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen, a/k/a tar-sands oil or dilbit, from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
"President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said at the time. "Today, we are asking him to use that pen to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built."
But just a few weeks later, environmentalists were dealt a harsh blow when the US State Department, tasked with evaluating the environmental impact of such a project, issued a draft statement that was kinder to tar sands than activists had expected or hoped. The document highlights the economic benefits of building the Keystone pipeline and suggests that while the extraction and processing of tar sands does produce slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than that of conventional oil, the impact is less than critics have claimed.
Ultimately, the report reads, "approval or denial of [Keystone XL] is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area."
In other words, what's the point of fighting it?
On top of that, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, which represents the operators of more than 68,000 miles of pipelines in Canada, is touting a new report by oil and gas consultancy Penspen Integrity, which claims diluted bitumen is no more corrosive than conventional crude oil: "The corrosion risks associated with dilbit . . . are considered to be no greater than with conventional crude oils in transmission pipelines, and existing integrity management techniques are capable of mitigating these risks."
But local eco-activists aren't buying it. More than 30 towns in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine (including Bethel, Casco, and Waterford) have recently passed local resolutions stating their opposition to or concerns about tar sands; several more have done so in Quebec. Raymond considered one earlier this month, but selectmen rejected it, and Portland's own city council is discussing a similar proposal. These resolutions are a preemptive strike against the prospect that the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, which operates two pipelines and a marine terminal in Portland Harbor, will eventually agree to pump tar sands oil from Canada to South Portland through its underground lines. They don't really have any teeth, but they're symbolic all the same.
Monday's public meeting at the South Portland Community Center was convened to raise awareness and education about tar sands. No direct action or vote was expected to come of it. Dylan Voorhees, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, offered a presentation outlining the potential pitfalls of bringing dilbit through New England, including the danger of spills and leaks. Portland Pipe Line president Larry Wilson and New England Petroleum Council director John Quinn gave counterarguments, pointing to the State Department's report as well as economics (Portland Pipe Line admits it is open to the possibility of transporting tar-sands oil if it makes financial sense). About 40 citizens, most of them anti-tar sands, also had the opportunity to speak. (A video from the meeting will be available at southportland.org.)
President Obama is expected to make the call on Keystone this summer; what he decides will affect us either way.