Could Portland become 'dirty tar sand' capital of Eastern Seaboard?

Posted Tuesday, September 6, 2011 in Investigation

Could Portland become 'dirty tar sand' capital of Eastern Seaboard?

Tailing pond near a tar sands facility, Alberta.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine has joined with four other environmental organizations in an effort to block a Canadian pipeline project that could make Portland the “tar sands capital” of the Eastern United States. 

The groups have sent a letter that calls on the National Energy Board of Canada to deny a special exemption request by oil and gas giant Enbridge Inc. to reverse the flow of a portion of a pipeline that would eventually deliver crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Portland, to be shipped to refineries on the mid-Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico. 

“We should be making every effort to prevent Portland from becoming the tar sands capital of the Eastern United States,” said NRCM Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim. “This is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet, causing massive environmental impacts across a widening expanse in western Canada. This initial step toward a tar sands pipeline to Maine should be stopped in its tracks.”

The sprawling tar sands operations in Alberta are broadly considered to be one of the most environmentally destructive energy projects in the world, destroying boreal forestland that provides crucial habitat for endangered woodland caribou and breeding grounds for millions of birds. The operation generates large volumes of air and water pollution. Enbridge-owned pipelines have experienced hundreds of ruptures over the past decade, spilling more than 1 million gallons of oil that has polluted rivers and wetlands, and threatened wildlife.

Enbridge is requesting fast-track approval from Canada’s National Energy Board to reverse the flow of crude oil in one of its pipelines (Line 9) from Sarnia, Ontario, to Westover, Ontario. The company claims the pipeline initially will transport light crude oil that is not from the Alberta tar sands, but every indication suggests that this project – referred to as “Phase 1” by the company – represents the first step of a project to bring tar sands to Portland. 

“This looks like a calculated effort by Enbridge to get a foot in the door on a huge pipeline project that would deliver dirty tar sands oil to Maine,” said Didisheim. “We’re calling on Canada’s energy regulatory board to reject this blatant scheme by Enbridge to avoid scrutiny of its project by breaking it up into pieces. Enbridge should be required to submit the full project, or nothing, and they should be required to address and defend the broad array of pollution, economic and safety problems that would be associated with a pipeline that brings tar sands oil to U.S. refineries.”

In addition to NRCM, the letter to the National Energy Board was signed by the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Environment Defence of Canada, the Pembina Institute, and Equiterre.

The effort by Enbridge to reduce public, regulatory, and media attention to one of its projects comes at a time when another tar sands pipeline — TransCanada’s proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast — has drawn widespread opposition, including the arrest this month of almost 600 people participating in civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. 

In 2008, Enbridge was pursuing a project known as “Trailbreaker” to bring heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands operations to Portland, on Line 9 and a reversed Portland-Montreal pipeline, but the $350 million project was suspended by a downturn in the economy. The groups contend that Enbridge now is splitting the Trailbreaker project into pieces in order to bypass regulatory and public scrutiny.

NRCM and many organizations across the country are concerned that these tar sands pipeline projects (including Keystone XL and Trailbreaker) could lock the United States into dependence on a high-polluting fuel source, contributing to a massive expansion of tar sands operations in Canada. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime boreal forest in Alberta may be destroyed. Expansion of tar sands also would result in major increases in carbon pollution, because the difficult-to-extract oil from tar sands emits significantly more carbon pollution, on a life-cycle basis, than conventional oil. 

“At a time when we need clean energy solutions that reduce carbon pollution, these tar sands projects would move us in the wrong direction,” said Didisheim. The groups also raised concerns about pipeline-safety issues that would not be addressed if Enbridge were granted its proposed fast-track review.    

“Enbridge has a long history of pipeline failures that have contaminated rivers and streams here in the U.S. and across Canada. We’re concerned that a tar sands pipeline from western Canada to Maine would be plagued with these same problems,” said Didisheim. Tar sands oil typically is pumped at higher temperatures and pressures than conventional oil, and includes abrasive materials that can increase the risk of ruptures.

According to a report by the Polaris Institute, Enbridge’s pipelines experienced 713 spills between 1999 and 2009, releasing 133,856 barrels of oil into the environment. In 2010 alone, Enbridge pipelines spilled over 843,000 gallons of oil from Canada’s tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River — a spill that, at its height, involved more than 2,500 cleanup specialists working to reduce pollution along 35 miles of polluted river and shoreline.

The groups pointed out in their letter that Enbridge’s Line 9 is a relatively old pipeline built with the same material that was used in the Enbridge pipeline in Michigan that ruptured last year. Delivering tar sands crude oil to Maine would require reversing a pipeline owned by Portland Montreal Pipe Line, which currently transports crude from Maine, across New Hampshire and Vermont, to Quebec. Company officials recently disclosed that they are in discussions to do just that. 

Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co. treasurer Dave Cyr last week told the Toronto Globe and Mail: “We’re still very much interested in reversing the flow of one of our two pipelines to move Western Canadian crude to the Eastern Seaboard. We’re having discussions with Enbridge on their Line 9 and what it means to us.”

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