Tar sands threat moves closer

Getting Warmer
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 14, 2014

In the wake of a troubling decision by Canadian officials, anti-tar-sands activists are urging US Senator Susan Collins to join the rest of Maine’s Congressional delegation in calling for a new Presidential Permit should the Portland Pipe Line Corporation seek to reverse the flow in its own pipeline, which would open the valve to pump tar sands all the way from Canada to Casco Bay.

Last week, the National Energy Board of Canada gave approval to a proposal by pipeline giant Enbridge to reverse and increase the flow of crude oil — including diluted bitumen from Alberta — in its “Line 9B” pipeline from Westover, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec. Environmentalists have long considered this part of a piecemeal strategy on the part of Canadian oil barons to create a route for tar sands oil from Western Canada to the American East coast where it could in turn be shipped to refineries elsewhere (see “Tar Sands Disaster?” by Deirdre Fulton, August 17, 2012). “For our customers, Line 9B reversal is an important component of our broader market access initiatives to open up and expand connections to key refining markets,” Enbridge president and CEO Al Monaco said in a news release.

Indeed, activists see Montreal as the gateway to New England, at least when it comes to fossil fuels; Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Canada’s “decision should put Maine on high alert for the threat of tar sands transportation through our state.”

While the SoPo-based Portland Pipe Line Corporation (PPLC), which owns the US segment of the longer Portland-Montreal pipeline (PMPL), has said it has no immediate plans to reverse the direction of flow in its decades-old infrastructure (which currently pumps conventional crude oil northward into Canada), last week’s decision clearly raises the stakes (and suspicions) in this already fraught debate.

The new development led Independent Senator Angus King to join US Representatives Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats, in asking the State Department for a new Presidential Permit should an official reversal proposal surface; this in turn would trigger a comprehensive environmental review (see “No Tar Sands Oil Here, Please,” by Deirdre Fulton, February 1, 2013). Canada’s decision, he said, “clearly raises the possibility that the PPLC may seek to reverse the PMPL to bring dilbit from Montreal to South Portland.”

“Piping diluted bitumen southward would be a significant alteration in function for this decades-old line and it would present unknown environmental risk,” King wrote, citing the pipeline’s proximity to Sebago Lake (the drinking water supply for greater Portland) and the Androscoggin River. “The people of northern New England deserve a full assessment of that risk and the likelihood of a spill if the pipeline is reversed.”

Collins has not yet taken such a strong stance. To constituents contacting her office about the issue, she has sent a boilerplate letter that reads, in part: “I have noted your concern about possible environmental impacts.  Should a reversal of flows be proposed, I will certainly keep your concerns in mind.” (Collins’ office did not respond to the Phoenix’s request for comment.)

You may be wondering why activists are pushing for a Presidential Permit, when that strategy has proved less than bulletproof in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline (the State Department’s environmental impact report was somewhat less scathing than tar sands opponents had hoped it would be).

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