Interview with Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
On Jan. 26, hundreds of protesters are expected to converge in Portland, Maine, for what’s being billed as the largest tar sands protest in the Northeast. The impetus is what organizers say are plans to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline that currently takes oil from ships arriving in South Portland harbor and pump it to Montreal, Canada. Activists say the Canadian company Enbridge is now considering pumping tar sands oil from Alberta through Quebec, to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Both Enbridge and the Portland Pipeline Corporation, which is owned by ExxonMobil, say such plans were put on hold in 2009. But the National Wildlife Federation has released documents indicating that the proposal is still very much an active option.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the groups that’s organizing the protest, along with Environment Maine, 350.org, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups. Voorhees explains that despite asserting they have “no plans” to reverse the pipeline flow, the companies have, in fact, expressed a keen interest in doing just that.
DYLAN VOORHEES: They’ve actually not said that they don’t want to do this. In fact, what they’ve told public officials in a number of meetings is that they’d very much would like to do this. But what they’re saying also in public is that they have no plan at this time to do it. That’s like saying, “I don’t have a plan yet for dinner tonight.” They admit they’d like to do it because I think the prospect of sending oil into Canada these days is a diminishing market for them, and that’s what the pipeline does right now. It takes regular crude oil off tankers that come into Portland harbor and it flows up to Montreal. And it’s been doing that for 60 years. But there’s a new day in oil, and that’s because of tar sands in Canada. And Canada has, in the ground, enormous amounts of tar sands that oil companies are trying to get out of Canada. That’s the situation across Canada, and that’s led to proposals like the Keystone XL pipeline that would go from Canada down to the Gulf; there’s a project proposed for taking tar sands west to British Columbia, and this is really more of the same.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Burlington, Vt., and Casco, Maine, have recently passed resolutions opposing tar sands going through their towns. What, if any, control do towns have over a pipeline going through their territory?
DYLAN VOORHEES: Very little, unfortunately. And the town of Casco, Maine, which is a small town on Sebago Lake — which is one of the larger lakes in the state and kind of a jewel in the tourism region in southwestern Maine — Casco passed a resolution which expresses the sentiment of the town. It doesn’t really have a lot of binding impact, but it says very clearly and it was an actual vote of the townspeople at a town meeting, that they’re opposed to this and they’re very concerned about their economy and their environment. And I think that’s what we’ll begin to see in more towns across Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont, and we’ve already seen a little of it in Quebec — towns saying, “We don’t want this.” And hopefully, collectively, this sends a message. But towns don’t have a lot of say and even states may not have a lot of say. What we’ve been starting to say is that we’re calling on the U.S. State Department to require what’s called a presidential permit, and that’s because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, the State Department is the one that can control permitting. And we want to make sure a presidential permit will be required before this happens and that will enable us to see an environmental review happen. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re very concerned that this project could go forward without, really, environmental reviews.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Dylan Voorhees, tar sands is a lot more corrosive than other oil, and this pipeline is already 60 years old. Are there concerns about spills?
DYLAN VOORHEES: There’s a lot of concerns in Maine about possible spills if tar sands was moving to this pipeline. And that’s because tar sands has different physical properties than crude oil. It’s much more viscous. It’s much more toxic. It’s actually diluted down with very dangerous, toxic chemicals. And because of the higher temperatures, higher pressures, and additional corrosiveness, acidity, and abrasives, we think the danger is significantly greater. What we particularly know is that tar sands pipelines in the Midwest that have been carrying tar sands for some time, have had spills or leaks at three times the rate of regular oil pipelines per mile of pipeline. Secondly, the consequences of a spill of tar sands are much more damaging than regular crude oil, and that’s because it’s so thick and it’s so heavy and it has these toxic chemicals in it. And the huge oil spill, tar sands spill, in the Kalamazoo River in 2010 — which was an Enbridge pipeline — really demonstrated how practically impossible to clean up tar sands is if it spills.
BETWEEN THE LINES: This rally is being billed as the largest tar sands protest in the Northeast. What exactly is your goal in bringing people to Portland on January 26?
DYLAN VOORHEES: I think the rally is meant to really get on the radar that this is a very serious issue, and that the public — not just in Maine, but across the region — really don’t want to see this happen, and are calling on elected officials, first and foremost, to act on the people’s behalf and really make sure, as a first order, that there’s an environmental review before this happens, and that’s sort of common sense but it’s not a foregone conclusion that there would even be a real permitting and environmental review process for this change. The direction of the flow is not in itself the threat. The threat is tar sands and that’s why there’s been this huge outpouring of concern. It’s because the substance is not only heavy and toxic and threatens our water quality and the environment and people’s health and the economy — and certainly Maine relies on a clean environment, in that region in particular — and also because tar sands is kind of climate destroying, and the pollution associated with tar sands is so much higher than regular oil, and also there’s an increased awareness that we really need to be tackling climate pollution in a more serious way, so this switch to tar sands is really the wrong direction and the wrong idea for all kinds of reasons.