Big oil’s risky plan could have massive environmental impacts on Maine
The activists, clad mostly in black, flowed slowly and silently down Battery Street in Burlington. They carried signs proclaiming their opposition to tar sands and big oil, and when they reached the front of the Hilton hotel, they all laid down on the street, an amorphous configuration of hundreds of bodies. There were a few moments of silence. Then, faintly, a single female voice began singing the opening strains of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The chorus swelled as police officers and hotel guests looked on.
This “human oil spill” took place at the end of July, scheduled to coincide with the 36th annual conference of New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers. Its goal was to call attention to a looming threat to the region: tar sands oil.
Tar sands are a mix of sand, water, and a heavy, viscous hydrocarbon called bitumen that can be converted to oil after hardcore processing and refining. In its raw form, it feels like a gummy bit of asphalt. There are shallow deposits that can be mined with giant excavators and trucks, and deeper deposits found hundreds of feet underground that are extracted by shooting hot steam and chemicals into the earth, melting the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface. Mixed with various other toxins, it can be diluted for pipeline transport (this product, diluted bitumen, is sometimes referred to as “dilbit”). Tar sands oil is very different from light crude oil that flows easily and is most commonly converted into gasoline and kerosene.
Dilbit is even more of an environmental hazard than conventional crude oil: Extracting it produces more greenhouse gases; and due to its composition, it causes more of an impact when it spills.
According to a report issued by the Canadian Energy Resources Conservation Board, there are about 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Canada’s tar sands (the largest swath of which is in the western province of Alberta), second only to Saudi Arabia’s crude reserves.
This is the stuff that caused such a ruckus last year, when the Canadian oil and gas transmission company TransCanada proposed constructing the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil and dilbit from western Canada through the United States to Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. Thanks in part to activists like the ones who rallied in Vermont last month, the project was blocked by President Barack Obama last November, though it may come up for review again in 2013.
Another proposal, the Northern Gateway project, would transport dilbit from Alberta to the coast in British Columbia; that is also meeting stiff opposition from environmentalists and Aboriginal peoples.
And so, with obstacles to the south and the west, it only makes sense that Canadian energy giants are looking for another outlet for their black gold. It’s possible that alternative route could come through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. And that’s a terrifying idea.
“It’s not scare-mongering,” says Glen Brand, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Maine chapter. “Tar sands are poisonous and toxic and the prospect of a spill in places like the Androscoggin River, Sebago Lake, or Casco Bay is frightening.”
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PIECES
Back in 2008, the Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge (TransCanada’s rival), which owns and operates pipelines that transport more than 730 million barrels of petroleum products per year, proposed a project called Trailbreaker. That plan would have created a route along existing pipelines to bring oil western Canada all the way to Montreal, then down through New England to Portland, where it would be loaded onto tankers and taken overseas or to refineries on the East and Gulf Coast.
It was widely understood that Trailbreaker would help link tar sands fields to expanded markets. Doing so would have ostensibly given Canada a chance to capitalize on its sizeable oil supplies, rather than depending on imported crude oil.
The project called for the reversal of the flow of oil in of several chunks of pipeline, including Enbridge’s “Line 9,” which runs between key pumping stations in Canada, as well a separately owned pipeline between Montreal and South Portland. This 236-mile line is owned by the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, which has its corporate headquarters in South Portland and is itself two separate bodies: the Portland Pipe Line Corporation and Montreal Pipe Line Limited (there is no corporate relationship between Enbridge and the PMPL). The PMPL line, built in the early 1940s, currently transports imported conventional crude oil, which comes in on tanker ships, from Portland to Montreal for refining.
Reversing the flow to accommodate dilbit would require more pressure and higher temperatures within this 70-year-old pipeline.
In 2009 and 2010, the Portland Pipe Line Corporation made several indications that it was fully on board with pipe-reversal. In addition to published statements in the media, these included applying for an air-emissions license that was issued in draft form by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (the application was withdrawn in 2011), and seeking renewal of its Marine Oil Terminal Facility License. PPLC needed the license to keep operating as usual, but the summary section of its application stated that the company was considering a change to its operations to reverse pipeline flow. “Meetings with the PPLC prior to 2010 indicated that . . . storage at the terminal would be no different [if oil was coming in from Canada] than storing oil delivered by tanker vessel to the terminal,” says Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine DEP.
However, Trailbreaker never came to be. “That project was put on hold in 2009 due to lack of commercial support and is no longer being pursued by Enbridge,” according to the company’s website.
Or is it? Environmentalists believe this is a zombie proposal, back from the dead. Only this time, in response to greater public awareness and skepticism about tar sands, Enbridge is being even cagier.
The company has already sought — and gained — Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) approval for “Line 9 Reversal Phase 1.” That section of pipeline (Line 9A) will now pump oil eastbound from Sarnia, Ontario, to the Westover oil terminal near Hamilton, Ontario. At present, the pipeline is only allowed to carry light crude oil; for heavier materials like dilbit, Enbridge will need to go back before the NEB.
Also, Enbridge is seeking to reverse the flow between Westover and Montreal (Line 9B) “to access Quebec refining markets.” Enbridge anticipates submitting its full application for this project in the fall, according to company spokeswoman Jennifer Varey, and hopes to begin operation of the reversed Line 9B in the spring of 2014.
This means that within two years, a system of pipes could feasibly transport dilbit from the Alberta tar sands fields all the way to Montreal.
Meanwhile, in Dunham, Quebec — less than 10 miles from the border between Canada and the United States — we find another piece of the puzzle: a pumping station.
Earlier this year, a Canadian court denied Montreal Pipe Line Limited’s request to build a new pumping station in Dunham. The station, which would take up five acres in the birthplace of Quebec’s first vineyards (“No Oil in Our Wine” is the town’s rally cry), is a crucial component of pipeline reversal; the topography in the region requires that oil be given an extra boost if it is to flow successfully southeast.
“The pumping station is critical,” says Shelley Kath, a Canadian lawyer and senior consultant working with the Natural Resources Defense Council on issues related to high-carbon fuels. “You can’t reverse the pipeline without building a new pumping station.”
But the court’s decision doesn’t mean that environmentalists can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to convoluted Canadian bureaucratic proceedings, the company will have another chance to submit its application; just last month, a local commission indicated that it will reconsider the pumping station proposal.
“There are a number of signs that the old Trailbreaker project has legs,” Kath says. “If we just sit back and wait for all the applications to be out there, it’s too late.” There may be opportunities for public comment down the line (it’s unclear what government agencies would need to sign off on pipe-reversal), but activists are mobilizing now to maximize impact if the time comes. Or, as Kath puts it, so that they’re not “playing catch up” if their worst-case scenario appears.
It’s important to note that the major parties to this proposal, including Enbridge and the Portland Montreal Pipe Line company, deny that anything like the Trailbreaker project is currently on the table.
“In response to inquiries we received in recent weeks, we want to let our communities know that Portland Pipe Line Corporation and Montreal Pipe Line Limited (PMPL) do not currently have an active project associated with moving Western Canadian crudes in an easterly flow direction through our pipelines,” the company said in a written statement posted to its website in February.
Reached last week, Portland Pipe Line spokesman Ted O’Meara reaffirmed that position: “Nothing’s changed. There’s no active project.”
DEP spokeswoman DePoy-Warren says the department has fielded many questions on this topic over the past year, but hasn’t heard anything from the Portland Pipe Line Company itself.
And in a 2011 letter to Canada’s NEB, Enbridge insisted that the Line 9 reversals were “not in any way a manifestation of the former Trailbreaker Project.”
But that’s not enough to convince everyone. (Not to mention that it’s not the only way that tar sands oil could come through Maine.)
“Why would you reverse the [Line 9] pipeline unless you’re going to move beyond Montreal?” Brand asks. (And why would you propose a new pumping station if you weren’t going to reverse the flow?) “The purpose of the denials is to avoid heightening public concern and regulatory scrutiny.”
SPILLS THAT KILL
Both concern and scrutiny are on the rise, though, in the wake of recent news. The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recently mandated that Enbridge provide a comprehensive safety plan before being allowed to restart operations along Line 14, which ruptured in Wisconsin on the very same day that the Canadian NEB approved Enbridge’s Line 9A proposal. That day, more than 60,000 gallons of crude oil were released into a field.
And that’s nothing compared to the Kalamazoo River spill in 2010, in which an Enbridge pipe carrying diluted bitumen (i.e. tar sands oil) cracked, releasing one million gallons of oil and contaminating 36 miles of river in southwestern Michigan. More than 150 families were relocated; it’s cost $700 million to clean up so far; and the river only re-opened to the public this summer.
“Instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river’s bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use,” according to an in-depth report from Inside Climate News, a non-profit online news organization. “Meanwhile, the benzene and other chemicals that had been added to liquefy the bitumen evaporated into the air.”
Regarding pipeline safety, here’s what Enbridge president Al Monaco said in an August 3 statement: “Our goal at Enbridge is — and will continue to be — the prevention of all spills. In 2011 alone we invested about $400 million to ensure the safety and integrity of our system, and that amount is set to increase substantially — to more than $800 million — in 2012. Over the past two years we have doubled the number of staff dedicated to leak detection and pipeline control systems, and substantially strengthened our focus on the tools, technologies and strategies to ensure the fitness of our pipelines.”
But when it comes to a 70-year-old pipeline, is that enough? Especially when the pipeline passes Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for much of Southern Maine?
Last month, the Natural Resources Council of Maine organized a rally at the Raymond boat launch on Sebago Lake to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo spill and to indicate opposition to tar sands oil coming through Maine. Several similar events took place across the state. They highlighted not only the danger of spills, but also the absurdity of using fossil fuels to extract more fossil fuels.
“A lot of people expressed their concern,” said Michael McClellan, Raymond’s Republican state representative. He was on vacation during the rally but is now looking into the matter.
McClellan was one of 44 Maine state senators and representatives to cosponsor a legislative resultion last year that called on “the president and Congress . . . to support the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline.”
It’s unclear how many of those elected officials would support a similar project that passed through Maine.
“It was done to shine the light that we need to reduce the cost of home heating oil here in Maine and we need to look at all alternatives,” says state senator Jon Courtney, who sponsored the bill and is currently running to oust US Congresswoman Chellie Pingree from her 1st District seat. But, he adds, “anything that came through Maine we’d need to make sure that we first and foremost protect the environment . . . We need to provide low cost energy without sacrificing the environment.”
For what it’s worth, the director of the Governor’s Energy Office, Ken Fletcher, says the LePage administration has yet to formulate a position on the issue.
HOW TO STOP THE FLOW
Because future plans are so nebulous (or, some would argue, non-existent) it’s hard to find a foothold for opposition beyond demonstrations and warning cries. Still, should Enbridge and the PMPL formally renew the project, there are two potential ways to stop tar sands oil from coming through New England.
The first is a unique law — Vermont’s Act 250, the Land Use and Development Act — that subjects a proposed development project to 10 criteria that seek to safeguard quality of place, such as environmental concerns, and continuity with municipal plans. (Part of Vermont’s jealous protection of its character and environment, it is so strong and wide-ranging that it has even been used to control the paint colors of McDonald’s restaurants!)
Because Act 250 was passed in 1970, almost 30 years after the pipeline was constructed, the pipeline has never been reviewed under the 10 criteria. However, environmentalists hold that shifting the contents of the system from conventional crude oil to tar sands oil would be a “substantial change in use,” says National Wildlife Federation lawyer Jim Murphy, who is based in Vermont. “It’s a change in substance going through the pipeline,” he says. “Our feeling is that going forward the project should be subjected to Act 250 review.”
Given tar sands’ many environmental implications, it’s possible that pipeline reversal could be stymied in this way.
Another option is to force the pipeline company to seek a new presidential permit for the project, like the one TransCanada sought for Keystone XL. The pipeline has such a permit for its current use, and back in 2008, the State Department indicated in a letter to the pipeline company that the existing permit would cover a reversal in flow. However, that letter made no distinction between tar sands and conventional oil. Again, the environmentalists believe that “those are different products with different sets of concerns,” as Murphy puts it.
Pushing for a new or amended presidential permit would require that the State Department consider whether reversing the pipeline to accommodate tar sands oil would be in the national interest. It would also prompt a comprehensive environmental impact study.
There’s one last tactic that would be more symbolic than legally binding, yet still could influence public perception. The Sierra Club, the NRDC, Environment Maine, and the Maine chapter of 350.org are encouraging towns and cities to consider local resolutions that voice opposition or at least serious concern about tar sands oil passing through their borders.
Several towns in Canada have already issued such resolutions — including Potton, Quebec, just a few minutes north of Dunham. Some Maine officials have indicated interest in similar tactics.
“We are going to aggressively engage policymakers,” Murphy says. “And use whatever tools we legally can to try to make sure that the Northeast does not become a market or a pass-through for tar sands.”
RAIL, OR ROAD? THE EAST-WEST HIGHWAY IS ANOTHER OPTION
Although the Enbridge/Portland Montreal Pipe Line scenario is one of the most realistic ways to envision tar sands oil coming through Maine, there are other potential routes as well.
Recent significant upgrades to the Irving oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick (just past the Maine border on the Bay of Fundy) suggest that tar sands oil could head in that direction for further processing.
Just look at a map: Draw a straight line from Montreal to Saint John, and it’s impossible not to wonder if the controversial East-West Hhighway proposal has something to do with oil. While the man behind the Northern Maine road, Peter Vigue, has denied that a pipeline could be part of his highway-slash-utility corridor, it’s reasonable to think that oil companies — with whom Vigue has longtime connections through his construction corporation Cianbro — would be enticed by a more direct route to Saint John.
In June, the Portland Press Herald reported that trains were taking “test quantities of tar sands” across Maine to the Irving refinery, which has substantially increased its unloading and dilbit-refining capacity. Both the Pan Am and Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic railway companies have indicated that they are interested in shipping more oil across the state; the Association of American Railroads reports the number of rail tankers carrying crude oil and petroleum products in the United States increased more than 35 percent during the first six months of the year when compared with 2011. Moving product by rail is cheaper than shipping it by sea, but more expensive than going through pipelines. Stay tuned.
And don’t forget about Keystone XL architect TransCanada, which is also looking into ways to expand its eastern market. According to the Canadian Press, a wire service serving our neighbors to the north, TransCanada is “looking at converting its gas mainline, which is running on part-empty, to oil service.” Presumably it would seek East Coast destinations for this oil.
But in the words of Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author who founded the grassroots climate change campaign 350.org and spoke at the Burlington rally, “we are really going to stop this in its tracks.”
“Against all odds, at least for a little while, we managed to win,” he said, referring to last year’s policy brawl over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. “These guys will have no idea what they’ve bitten off if they try to build this across New England.”