Senator Jim Boyle, Chair
Representative Joan Welsh, Chair
Joint Standing Committee on Environment & Natural Resources
Senator Boyle and Representative Welsh,
NRCM has been active in opposing the transportation of tar sands through Maine for about two years. We offer qualified support for this Resolve. We support efforts to slow down development of tar sands infrastructure in order to better understand the significant risks to Maine’s environment, public health, and economy, although the specifics of the bill do not go quite as far in the precise direction needed at this time.
We commend the sponsor, Representative Chipman, for his concern about tar sands and for bringing forward this bill. As far as we are aware, this bill did not emerge from one of the environmental advocacy organizations working on tar sands in Maine. The fact that it emerged independently of our efforts is just one indication of how broad and diverse concerns about tar sands is becoming in Maine.
Indeed, the possibility of dangerous and toxic tar sands oil coming through Maine along the Montreal-Portland pipeline should concern everyone.
Tar sands oil is not like conventional crude oil. (The American Petroleum Industry likes to claim that tar sands oil is just like regular crude—unless you are talking about taxation. Tar sands oil is exempted from paying into the federal oil spill liability fund which other forms of crude pay into.) The more technical term for the form of tar sands that increasingly flows through North American pipelines is “diluted bitumen”. As the name suggests, the bitumen that is mined or melted out of the ground in Alberta, Canada, must be diluted before it can be transported through pipelines. Even diluted it is typically piped at pressures considerably higher than normal crude oil. Diluted bitumen cannot be refined at a normal refinery; it must be specially “upgraded” first. Its physical and chemical properties spawn a multitude of additional risks.
The diluents themselves are toxic volatile chemicals, such as the known carcinogen benzene. When tar sands spills, these chemicals evaporate into the air, causing air quality concerns for residents and responders alike. When a million gallons of tar sands spilled near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan three years ago, there were hundreds of public health complaints such as nausea, headaches and dizziness. Benzene levels caught the EPA off guard. This year’s tar sands spill in Mayflower, Arkansas also appears to have generated air toxics at levels of concern.
When these chemicals vaporize, they leave behind the bitumen that is heavier than water and sinks into sediment. Normal crude oil floats, so typical oil spill clean-up technics such as booming and skimming the surface of contaminated water do not work. Clean-up of the Kalamazoo River is not complete nearly three years later, at a cost approaching one billion dollars. (Despite the best efforts of the oil company to evade further clean-up measures.) Much of the cost and time has come from the requirement of dredging huge areas of the river bed. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that heavy oil lodged in the sediment of rivers and wetlands causes much greater damage; or that dredging is an extremely damaging type of remediation itself.
To make matters worse, studies show that tar sands pipelines spill more often—approximately three times more often, according to a Cornell University study. You may hear lots from the industry about how tar sands pipelines are just as safe as other oil pipelines. They are not. They will tell you tar sands is no more corrosive, but this is disingenuous. For example, they ignore evidence of external corrosion effects. Honestly more scientific study is required to properly evaluate the risks of tar sands pipelines. The vast majority of studies that have been done are by industry or industry-friendly groups; several frequently cited studies almost laughably fail to replicate real world conditions.
Tar sands proponents from the oil industry have sometimes referenced the U.S. State Department’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline as evidence of no problem. I’m sure you will hear that line today. They quote excerpts from this thousand-page report, ignoring others that highlight greater concerns. In fact, last month the EPA offered heavy criticism of the draft EIS prepared, including pointing out that the report did not put sufficient weight on the additional environmental risks when tar sands spills.
Adding final insult to injury, tar sands pipelines are not adequately regulated by the federal government (and states have no power to regulate pipeline safety.) Even regulations for conventional pipelines are lax, and regulators rely largely on companies to police themselves. Did you know that leak detection systems fail to catch 80% of pipeline spills over 42,000 barrels per day? There are no separate standards for diluted bitumen whatsoever. (A petition for rulemaking recently submitted to the EPA and the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, PHMSA, would change that if accepted. State Senator John Patrick was one of several dozen petitioners nationwide.)
When the tar sands spill happened in Kalamazoo, groups like NRCM said it illustrated how dangerous tar sands pipelines could be. And why Maine should think twice before allowing tar sands to flow through our state, as is being pursued by the Portland Pipe Line Corporation. Industry called us opportunists. “Pipeline companies have every incentive to prevent spills,” they said. “This was a unique case, etc.” But then two months ago, another massive tar sands pipeline spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands into a suburban Arkansas neighborhood. The parallels with Maine’s pipeline are troubling:
- Both pipelines are aging — over 60 years old.
- That pipeline is owned by ExxonMobil; Maine’s pipeline is majority owned by an Exxon subsidiary.
- Both travel extensively across a watershed that provides surface drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people—recently the water district in central Arkansas asked for the pipeline to be moved entirely out of the water district before re-starting.
- Both were designed to carry conventional crude oil north, and then targeted for reversal to carry tar sands.
The Arkansas pipeline was reversed seven years ago. In its corrective order after the spill, PHMSA stated that reversals can add extra stress to pipeline systems. In fact, the Arkansas pipeline was extensively tested at that time and there were no red flags.
All of this is why we are extremely concerned about the possible reversal of the crude oil pipeline between Montreal and Portland to carry tar sands oil south for export on tankers.
However well intentioned, the bill does not go far enough to get at the real crux of our concern: that the Portland-Montreal pipeline could begin to move tar sands without a real permitting process that includes an environmental review. We are less interested in a state study about the general environmental hazards of tar sands than we are in a specific environmental review of this pipeline and the specific natural resources at risk from that pipeline.
Our pipeline passes extensively throughout the Androscoggin, Crooked and Presumpscot river watersheds, crossing each at least once (and the Crooked six times.) It comes a stone’s throw from Sebago Lake, drinking water supply for 1 in 7 Mainers — a drinking water supply so pristine it has a water treatment waiver from the EPA. The regions of the Western Foothills, Sebago Lake, and Casco Bay are all incredibly dependent on clean natural resources for recreation and their economy. Maine’s environment, drinking water, and recreational and natural-resource based economy cannot afford this risk. Especially when there would be no real benefit for Maine. (Certainly zero energy benefits from exported unprocessed tar sands oil.)
Because of the pipeline regulatory framework, a permitting process with environmental review can really only happen at the federal level. A reversal to carry tar sands could and should require a revised “Presidential Permit”, issued by the State Department, which would require an environmental impact review of the specific project. But the pipeline company is lobbying against needing to take this step, which would leave Maine people with no environmental review and no public input process.
I’m sure you will hear today about the Portland Pipe Line Corporation’s stellar safety record. Enbridge had a good safety record too, before it got hooked into the profitable, high pressure tar sands business 15 years ago. And I’m sure ExxonMobil made a big deal of all the pipeline testing they did in Arkansas before the reversal. We absolutely agree that PPLC has had a very good record and very few spills. But their past record is absolutely insufficient assurance to let them make this substantial change to carrying tar sands with no permitting or environmental review of resources and communities along the route. (The company likes to make the empty promise that they will comply with all regulations and permitting. Unsaid is the fact that no permits will be required in Maine except for modifications at the South Portland terminal itself. And likely no federal permits without a new Presidential Permit.)
Finally, the company’s statements about the status of their project have been all over the map in the past year. They denied any project, now they are “aggressively” pursing oneâwhile still denying one exists. We recognized that the committee may find this confusing. I’ve attached a map showing the full context for this reversal (including the line in Canada that connects the Montreal-Portland pipeline to the existing tar sands pipeline network.) Make no mistake: a project is coming and now is the time to ensure that there is an environmental review waiting for it.
In conclusion we hope the committee will take a broad approach to this bill and look for ways to help protect the Maine environment from undue risks from tar sands by focusing on the specific pipeline and helping ensure there is adequate permitting and environmental review. It is somewhat frustrating that this is a federal matter, but we hope we can work with the committee to take some action that will make a difference.