by Patty B. Wight
MPBN news story
Oil has been transported across Maine into Canada for more than 70 years. Now, many environmental groups worry the reverse will soon happen, with a more dangerous form of oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta flowing from Canada to Maine. Groups concerned about that possibility released a report today that says such a change would open the door to threats to Maine’s drinking water and natural areas.
Shelley Kath is an analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which published the report. She says first, it’s important to understand what tar sands oil is. “It’s not your grandaddy’s oil. It is much more acidic, has more sulfur. It’s hot because at room temperature it’s almost a solid.”
This, says Kath, is a problem, because when you heat tar sands oil to pump it through a pipeline, that creates more pressure. And she says Maine’s pipelines are 62 years old. “So does it do well in older pipelines? No. It doesn’t actually even do well in newer pipelines.”
According to a report released earlier this year by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, pipelines moving tar sands crude in the Midwest from 2007 to 2010 spilled nearly three times as much crude per mile as the national average.
“In fact, there are no pipeline safety standards for tar sands pipelines,” says Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He says this is particularly troubling given that Canadian pipeline company Enbridge has already started the process of reversing the flow of tar sands from west to east.
In 2011, Enbridge filed a permit application to reverse flow of a portion of one of its pipelines in Canada. Last month, they announced plans to reverse another portion of its Canadian pipeline.
Shelley Kath believes Enbridge is taking a piecemeal approach that is part of a larger plan to reverse the flow through Maine. “I’m sure they’re hoping that smaller discreet projects might attract less attention,” she says.
“There is no active project at this time, so we’re not going to get into a lot of speculation about what might happen,” says Ted O’Meara, a spokesperson for the Portland Pipeline Corporation, which owns Maine’s existing pipeline. Enbridge would have to work out an agreement with them to reverse the flow.
As far as concerns about safety, O’Meara says Portland Pipeline’s history speaks for itself. “You know, they have been recognized in the last year by their industry and by the U.S. Coast Guard and they’ve received a number of awards over the years in recognition of their safety efforts,” he says.
That’s little consolation to fishing guide Brooke Hidell. He sees too much chance for error on the waterway he relies on for work – the Crooked River. “This pipeline crosses the Crooked River not once, not twice, but half a dozen times,” he says.
Dylan Voorhees says he and the rest of the coalition want certain things to happen before any plans to reverse the flow of tar sands continue. They want the U.S. and Canada to create safety regulations for tar sands oil pipelines, and for each application to reverse flow to be thoroughly vetted as part of a larger, long-term plan.
“And finally, we need to continue to strengthen and further develop our clean energy plans for New England before we commit to large-scale infrastructure investments that are really designed to increase our dependence on oil,” Voorhees says.
Even with these proposed changes, Voorhees says he doesn’t think any conditions really make transporting tar sands acceptable. He says there isn’t even an economic argument for the pipeline.
“The pipeline is there, so you’re not building anything new, or what little upgrades you’re doing are very modest,” he says. “There isn’t a plan to rebuild this pipeline. There’s not new revenues from it–we’re not taxing the oil. It’s going into our state and out of our state. We don’t tax that.”
Voorhees says the way he sees it, bringing tar sands oil to Maine is all risk and no benefit for the state. In a statement, Enbridge spokesperson Graham White said the company dropped a previous plan for a pipeline reversal in 2009 and is no longer pursuing it.