2012-10-19 / Front Page

Could pipeline become part of larger project?

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


The Portland Pipe Line Company sends crude oil from the docks of Casco Bay into Montreal. (Jack Flagler photo) The Portland Pipe Line Company sends crude oil from the docks of Casco Bay into Montreal. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine environmental groups say a plan is in the works to transport controversial oil sands through a pipeline in Maine. But the company that operates the pipeline, which currently carries crude oil from the Casco Bay docks in South Portland to Montreal, says no such project exists.

More than 100 people attended a public forum at Southern Maine Community College’s Jewett Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 10 to hear from environmental experts about the dangers of oil sands, also called tar sands, and find out what they could do as citizens to prevent the controversial fuel source from coming through Maine.

A report from various environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and National Resources Defense Council, alleges that oil companies have plans to revive a project shelved in 2008 that would reverse the flow of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline that currently carries crude oil from Casco Bay to Montreal, and replace the crude oil with oil sands.

Oil sand is an abundant resource in Canada, but landlocked without a pipeline to take it to ports. The pipeline to Casco Bay would allow oil companies to access international markets.

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, said there are no plans to reverse the course of the pipeline or replace the crude oil with oil sands.

“There was a project discussed a few years ago that never went anywhere. Since then, there has not been, and is not today, a plan to do that,” O’Meara said.

The National Resources Defense Council argued against that point in a June report titled, “Going in Reverse.” It said that Canadian oil company Enbridge plans to rekindle the “Trailbreaker” project from years ago, in which it would transport oil sands from western Canada, where they are a plentiful resource, to Casco Bay, through the Portland- Montreal Pipeline, as well as another oil pipeline in Canada, Enbridge Line 9. Last year, Enbridge applied for a permit to the Canadian government to reverse a section of Line 9 in Ontario.

“Although Enbridge has claimed this is a standalone project, the application appears to signal the rebirth of Trailbreaker,” the report states.

“I think they looked at some things going on in Canada, made some assumptions, and stated some things as fact that aren’t the case,” O’Meara countered.

The majority of attention in the oil sands debate has focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, which, according to Steven Mufson of the Washington Post, is still under federal review for the northern section of the pipeline, but is already under construction in south Texas. The pipeline would carry tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, and opponents have tried everything in their power to get in its way.

“One day, people chained themselves to a truck. Another day, they stood in front of bulldozers. Several people have been arrested, including, briefly, a New York Times reporter,” Mufson writes.

Oil sands are a cheap source of energy that is abundant and plentiful in parts of Canada, said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine. She explained why some vehemently oppose bringing them through pipelines in the United States.

“Tar sands oil is like hot liquid sandpaper that is grinding and burning its way through a pipeline,” Figdor said.

She said oil sands are “the consistency of peanut butter,” and because the substance is thicker and more viscous than conventional oil, that means oil companies need to use more heat, pressure and corrosive chemicals to transport it through a pipeline. That added pressure means there’s a greater chance the pipeline will rupture and contaminate the environment, she said.

The area in the most danger in Maine, Figdor said, is Sebago Lake, which provides drinking water for greater Portland, 15 percent of Maine’s population. According to an Environment Maine report, the pipeline passes within 1,000 feet of Sebago Lake, and an oil sands spill near the lake would be “utterly disastrous.”

The other question environmental groups have raised about the Portland-Montreal Pipeline is, who exactly is behind the operation. The Portland Pipe Line Corporation owns the U.S. portion of the pipeline, and Montreal Pipe Line Limited has control over the portion in Canada. But Portland Pipe Line is a wholly owned subsidiary of Montreal Pipe Line Limited, which is in turn owned by three shareholders —Suncor Energy, Shell Oil Company and Imperial Oil Limited. Through Imperial Oil, the corporate ownership trail leads to oil giant ExxonMobil, according to environmental groups.

The complicated corporate structure gives oil companies an element of “deniability,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. But he pointed out the companies aren’t attempting to hide their ownership from the public. Voorhees added he believes the oil companies are not looking to Casco Bay as an alternative or substitute to the Keystone XL pipeline, but rather are exploring all their options to access the coast.

“I think the amount of tar sands in the ground in Alberta is so large that the big oil companies collectively are looking at lots of ways to get it to port cities and to global oil markets,” Voorhees said.

While O’Meara said the Portland Pipe Line Corporation is owned by various large shareholders, he argues it operates with its own interests and priorities in mind. The Portland- Montreal Pipeline, O’Meara said, “has its own management, employees, its own policies and procedures.”

Furthermore, he added, the company has a sterling environment record and reputation through the decades it has operated in South Portland.

Because the pipeline passes through multiple states on its way to Canada, from Maine through northern New Hampshire then Vermont, the federal government has jurisdiction over laws that govern its operation. But Figdor said if there are changes to come, it is important for citizens, local and state governments to make their voices heard.

“It is incumbent on us to do everything we can to insist the U.S. government does a full environmental review,” Figdor said.

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