Close to 1500 people from around the Northeast and Canada gathered in downtown Portland on Saturday to protest a potential project that would pipe tar-sands oil from western Canada through New England to Portland Harbor. While corporate energy officials continue to insist there is no such project in the works, protesters remain wary; beyond that, the demonstration signaled the further coalescing of a legitimate climate change movement — one focused not just on battling tar sands, but on pressing for real policy solutions.
On what US Congresswoman Chellie Pingree described as a "beautiful, brisk Maine day" (Saturday's high was 22 degrees), the rally-goers met in Monument Square, then noisily snaked through Portland down to the Maine State Pier, a parade of banners and chanting and drums and horns. "We don't want your dirty oil," they yelled. "Leave the tar sands in the soil."
Tar sands, a/k/a bitumen, is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, water, and an extremely viscous, tar-like form of petroleum, which can be isolated and extracted by injecting steam and chemicals deep into the ground. To transport diluted bitumen requires high temperatures and pressure. Local environmenalists are particularly concerned that oil giants are hatching a plan to pump and ship tar-sands oil from western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast via existing, old pipelines that run between Montreal and Portland (see "Tar Sands Disaster?" by Deirdre Fulton, August 17, 2012).
At the pier, with enormous oil tanks in the background and an energetic, sign-wielding crowd before her, Pingree vowed to "ask the Obama administration to do a full environmental review of any attempt to bring tar-sands oil through that pipeline."
She also said that if the proposal were to move forward, she would call for President Barack Obama to issue a new presidential permit that reflects the shift in pipeline contents — from traditional crude oil to tar-sands oil. "And I don't believe the facts will support one," she said.
Meanwhile, the petroleum powers-that-be maintain that all this hubbub is unfounded.
"[C]ontrary to recent reports and claims by some environmental and protest groups in the region, Enbridge has no plans or proposals whatsoever to transport any crude products, including diluted bitumen, through the pipelines of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line company that runs from Portland, Maine to Montreal, Quebec," the company said in a statement released late last week.
More ominously, on its website, the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line corporation said: "While we do not have an active project to reverse the flow in either of our pipelines, if there is a demand for doing so in the future, we will consider it."
It's difficult to see such demand not rising. According to the research consulting group Ecofys, which recently completed the "Point of No Return" report for Greenpeace, "production of oil from the tar sands in Alberta will triple from 1.5 to 4.5 million barrels a day by 2035, adding 706 million tons of CO2 to global emissions a year. By 2020, the tar sands expansion would add annual emissions of 420 million tons of CO2, equal to those of Saudi Arabia." All that product has to go somewhere. (To that end, activists are also battling tar sands giants on the West Coast.)