by Lisa Pohlmann and Brownie Carson
Times Record op-ed
The possibility that tar sands oil will be pumped through a pipeline across Maine is now on the public’s radar, especially in the wake of the enormous march and rally in Portland on Jan. 26. Press reports on the rally have led many people, including the editors of this paper (“Tar and feather,” p. A6, Jan. 29), to consider tar sands oil in the broader context of energy policy and the environment.
Citizen concern is rising because of the potential threat to the health of people and our environment if tar sands oil were to spill here, especially into the Androscoggin River or Sebago Lake. The greatest concern is the risk that tar sands pipelines present to our nearby people, communities, rivers, drinking water and coastal waters.
Although there are important technical details regarding the physical and chemical properties of tar sands in pipelines, one simple fact rises above them all: Tar sands pipelines leak and spill more per mile than conventional oil pipelines. (The study was conducted by Cornell University.)
More leaks and spills rightly worry local residents, businesses and others who enjoy and depend on the clean waters in Maine’s Sebago and western lakes regions. It is not surprising that tar sands pipelines spill more, when you understand that, even when diluted, tar sands are much more acidic and viscous than conventional oil, requiring it to be pumped at higher pressures. So the Portland Montreal pipeline’s history of carrying conventional oil in its 62-year-old pipeline is not very relevant to a future of carrying tar sands oil.
In addition to a risk of more spills, tar sands oil spills cause more harm than conventional oil spills. For one thing, they pollute the air with toxic chemicals added to dilute the otherwise semi-solid tar sands. In addition, tar sands tend to sink to the bottom of lakes, ponds, rivers and other water bodies, making it nearly impossible to clean up.
The tar sands pipeline spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 has still not been cleaned up, despite the billion dollars spent so far. When the environmental and health hazards became clear, that pipeline company decided to simply buy out more than 100 homes rendered uninhabitable or unmarketable.
How could we possibly accept risks like these to Sebago Lake or the drinking water supply for the entire Portland region? How could we possibly jeopardize hundreds of Maine businesses and thousands of jobs that depend on clean water and healthy natural resources, from summer camp owners to wilderness guides and from clammers to tourism entrepreneurs?
These risks are particularly unacceptable given that using the Maine pipeline to carry tar sands to global markets would offer no real benefit to Maine.
There is even more at stake, as the editors of this paper and others have observed.
Tar sands are called the dirtiest oil on the planet for good reason. The climate-changing pollutants generated through tar sands extraction, production and use are 130 percent that of regular oil. This increase is also unacceptable at a time we must strive to reduce global warming pollution significantly to avoid the costly, destructive impacts of climate change.
While, for months, the pipeline company maintained there was “no active project,” the company is now telling reporters they “would like a project.” It appears the company is just waiting for tar sands to reach Montreal. A permit to do so is pending with Canadian energy authorities right now.
But lawyers for the pipeline corporation have quietly told U.S. regulators they want to avoid new permits or a full environmental review if they choose to reverse the flow and carry tar sands in the Maine pipeline.
The oil industry, with its enormous profits and lousy track record protecting the environment, will continue to make claims about safety and environmental performance. Just days before the Kalamazoo River spill, that pipeline company stated it could shut down a spill in minutes. The pipeline spilled for 17 hours, and released more than 750,000 gallons of toxics into the river. This month, oil lobbyists began to spread outright falsehoods in Maine, claiming that much of Maine’s gasoline comes from Alberta tar sands. Simply not true.
We agree Maine needs to do more reduce oil consumption, but we also need to particularly reject tar sands, the most dangerous, toxic, and risky oil on Earth.
While “global economic forces” may want to exploit tar sands, as editors of this paper propose, the question for us is: What is in Maine’s best interest?
Tar sands and tar sands pipelines do not belong in Maine. They will not benefit Maine. And that is why so many voices are expressing concern before it is too late.
LISA POHLMANN, of Jefferson, is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. BROWNIE CARSON, of Harpswell, is the group’s former executive director.