There is a vast volume of tar sands oil being mined in the center of Canada, and Big Oil is anxious to get it to a coast so it can ship this dirty fuel to lucrative global markets. These oil companies give little consideration to those who are between them and their markets, and that’s bad news for Maine. Tar sands is the world’s dirtiest oil and we cannot afford to become reliant on it, whether it comes across Maine or it skirts around our borders to New Brunswick.
You may have heard that on Aug. 1, the pipeline giant TransCanada announced its plan to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through Montreal on its way through Quebec, and across New Brunswick to the Atlantic coast. This pipeline would probably carry tar sands oil in its crudest form: as diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen is the thick, heavier-than-water form of tar sands that spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan 2010, and into a suburban neighborhood and wetlands in Mayflower, Arkansas, this spring.
That proposal is on top of another company’s plan to bring tar sands from Alberta to Montreal, which is currently in the permitting stage. Due to capacity limitations, Montreal will not be the final destination for large amounts of unrefined tar sands, so the substance is likely to head through the existing pipeline that goes from Montreal through Vermont and New Hampshire and across the Lakes Region of Maine to Casco Bay. The managers of this Portland-Montreal pipeline have repeatedly said they would like to pipe tar sands oil across Maine for export on tankers.
With shrinking demand and increased domestic production, the United States is not the market for huge new tar sands projects, so Big Oil is looking overseas. As TransCanada’s CEO said: “If we’re going to be an oil-exporting nation, we’re going to have to get oil exported on the water.”
What’s at risk here in Maine? Diluted bitumen can be far more damaging to Maine’s water and to the Earth’s climate than the conventional crude oil that has flowed through the Maine pipeline in the past. Who would be a good authority on this matter? How about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In assessing the environmental impacts of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the EPA found that its experience with tar sands oil spills demonstrates a number of serious problems:
- Tar sands oil mixes “with the river bottom’s sediment and organic matter, making the oil difficult to find and recover;”
- Will not “appreciably biodegrade;”
- “After almost three years of recovery efforts, EPA recently determined that dredging of bottom sediments will be required to protect public health and welfare and the environment;”
- “In the event of a spill to water, it is possible that large portions of diluted bitumen will sink, and that submerged oil significantly changes spill response and impacts [compared to conventional oil.]”
In addition, the EPA said tar sands pipeline review should assess additional health risks by tar sands spills releasing large amounts of the carcinogens, like benzene, used to dilute tar sands—which spurred a neighborhood evacuation during the spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
While the company that owns the Portland-Montreal pipeline would like Maine people to believe that its pipeline is perfectly fine for carrying whatever substance the company wants, the serious tar sands pipeline spills in the last few years, coupled with our weak pipeline safety regulations, point to the need for extreme caution. The Arkansas pipeline was extensively tested just six years ago, before it was converted to carry tar sands, yet it still experienced a devastating spill this spring. It is the same age as the Maine pipeline – more than 60-years-old.
Beyond the safety risks to waters crossed by the Maine pipeline, such as the Crooked River or Sebago Lake, tar sands is a climate change disaster. Tar sands oil extraction and processing creates more global warming pollution than other oils, as was confirmed by the EPA’s recent assessment of the impact of the Keystone pipeline.
Maine is already experiencing early signs of climate change problems such as sea-level rise and erosion, more Lyme disease, losses to winter recreation, and impacts to lobsters and shellfish industries.
We invite readers to learn more about this issue and speak to elected officials about your concerns. The Montreal-Portland pipeline has lobbied federal regulators to allow it to reverse its pipeline’s direction, and begin to pipe tar sands, without a new permit and environmental review. We believe that bypassing a thorough review would be negligent, leaving us with an accident waiting to happen.
Congresswoman Pingree, Congressman Michaud, Sen. King and voters in a number of local towns have all called for this review, and we hope Sen. Collins will join them soon, and push for adequate environmental evaluation before any tar sands scheme could threaten Maine.
Norton Lamb, of New Gloucester, served on the New Gloucester Planning Board and land planning committee and currently serves on the boards of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program. Dylan Voorhees is clean energy director for Natural Resources Council of Maine.