by Ben Bragdon
Energy independence is so plainly necessary for the United States that it is hard to see why anyone short of a Saudi prince would be against it.
It is such a popular notion, in fact, that it is used as a political justification for a number of bad ideas. Think expanded offshore drilling, widespread nuclear power, or the mining of heavy “tar sands” crude oil from under the Canadian wilderness.
It is the latter issue that drew more than 200 people to a presentation earlier this month at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. There, representatives from two environmental groups warned of plans to move tar sands from Alberta, Canada, through a pipeline to South Portland for tanker delivery to American refineries. That pipeline now flows in the opposite direction, from the tank farms on the coast, through Westbrook and the Lakes Region and on to Montreal. But some signs point to the pipeline company reversing the stream so that tar sands can get to market through Maine. This became more likely after President Obama denied a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have shipped the tar sands through the Midwest on its way to the Gulf Coast.
Portland Pipeline Corp., which operates the pipeline in Maine, and Enbridge, which does the same in Canada, have discussed reversing the flow before, in 2008 under the Trailbreaker project, but dropped it due to the economic downturn. The environmental groups say those plans are back on, under a different name, and that the permitting process is under way in Canada. The companies deny having plans to renew the project, but they aren’t exactly ruling anything out.
“I think the way I’d characterize it is, the Portland Pipeline Corp. does not currently have an active project,” a spokesman for the Portland Pipeline Corp. told Current Publishing. “We’re also aware that there is interest in moving energy and doing so in North America. And we’re a pipeline company, and that’s what we’ve been since 1941, and I think when you look at our record, it’s a good one both from an environmental standpoint and safety of our employees.”
Mainers should be concerned about this project, and not just because the mining of tar sands is environmentally disastrous, or because shipping that heavy tar sands through the Lakes Region, within site of Sebago Lake, would put southern Maine’s drinking water supply in peril.
Mainers, and all Americans, should be concerned that the opening of a tar sands pipeline, whether through Maine or the Midwest, is just throwing another chip in what is an ultimately losing bet on fossil fuels. It keeps us invested too heavily in oil, and all that comes with it, when we should be focusing on new, sustainable energy technologies.
Though alternative energy efforts so far have not inspired a lot of confidence, and in some cases have been imprudent or disingenuous, the potential is there, as long as we truly make it a national priority. And while importing crude oil from Canada is better than relying on the Middle East, it does nothing to stem the ever-increasing demand for oil that ultimately props up those regimes, hurts the environment and keeps our economy tethered to a resource largely out of our control.
Truth be told, the tar sands issue is a small one in and of itself. All the extra carbon emissions caused by the mining are inconsequential when looked at what is produced in our country as a whole.
But a pipeline only distracts from what should be the goal of the country’s energy policy â the development of a diverse set of new energy sources to complement what we already have.