PORTLAND – As a proposal to build an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast has emerged as a contentious issue on the national political scene, a similar debate has started locally, regarding an existing pipeline that runs from the tank farms in South Portland and through the Lakes Region.
President Barack Obama last month denied a permit for TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline, but Senate Republicans this week moved to counter that action. Pipeline supporters say it would help lower the country’s reliance on oil from the Middle East, but the project has raised the ire of environmentalists, who argue the thick tar sands that would be delivered increase the likelihood of a disastrous spill and would speed up climate change.
Similar arguments are being made about the pipeline that for 71 years has transported crude oil from the tanks in South Portland to Montreal, by way of the Sebago Lake region. Local and national environmental groups said last week there is a project in the works that would reverse the pipeline’s flow so Canadian tar sands could reach Portland for tanker delivery to American refineries, placing the lake – and southern Maine’s drinking water supply – in danger.
Officials from Portland Pipeline Corp. and Canada-based Enbridge, two companies that discussed reversing the flow of the pipeline in 2008, say they do not have a current project in place that would impact Maine. Besides, they said, the companies boast a solid environmental record, and moving oil by pipeline is growing safer.
However, at a public informational meeting last Thursday at University of Southern Maine in Portland, representatives from the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club told a standing-room-only crowd that the companies were wrong on both accounts, and that the fight over the right use of the pipeline was just beginning.
Local issue now
Sebago Lake, in particular, is playing a prominent role in the groups’ efforts to halt any talk of pumping tar sands through the state. The pipeline runs from South Portland to Westbrook and through the Lakes Region towns of Windham, Raymond and Casco, crossing Panther Run and the Crooked River, which feed Sebago Lake.
Environmentalists are worried that the thick tar sands, which require pipelines to run at higher temperatures and velocity compared to conventional crude oil, could cause a leak in the underground pipeline, as has happened in other parts of the country when tar sands were introduced into pipelines built for lighter oil.
Enbridge and Portland Pipeline Corp. in 2008 discussed reversing the flow of oil from Montreal to Portland with the Trailbreaker Project, though it was eventually scrapped due to the economic downturn.
“The Trailbreaker project had included the potential reversal (of the Portland-Montreal pipeline), but we’re no longer pursuing that project,” said Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Varey.
Varey’s denial is seconded by David Cyr, secretary treasurer and spokesman for the Portland Pipeline Corp.
“We have a genuine interest in moving energy through our pipeline and we don’t have a project currently, so it’s a little speculative for me to say anything more than that,” Cyr said.
However, while the companies deny a renewed collaboration, Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, isn’t convinced.
“They are very clearly pursuing parts of the project formerly known as Trailbreaker,” he said. “They have an active application for the phase 1 of the Trailbreaker project. It’s not called Trailbreaker – they’re not using that name anymore – but it’s a phase 1 of the same proposal. It’s currently before the energy board in Canada.”
Varey denies Voorhees’ claims, repeating that Enbridge doesn’t have a project in the works to reverse the pipelines, although she does say the company is pursuing reversing the flow of a pipeline that leads from Sarnia, near Lake Huron, to Westover, Ontario.
Voorhees, who said Enbridge is “landlocked now and would love nothing more than to access a port on the Atlantic,” said the Sarnia-to-Westover reversal is the first phase of what he believes is a full reversal all the way to Montreal and Portland. The next best project to the Keystone XL pipeline, he said, is reversing flow to Portland, where tankers could pick up the tar sands oil for ocean transport to East Coast refineries.
Voorhees also said a company that owns a pumping station on the Canadian side of the Portland-Montreal pipeline is seeking a permit to make updates to its station that would allow it to push heavier tar sands.
“So all the pieces are still pointing in the same direction, that the company still intends ultimately to bring oil in the other direction,” Voorhees said.
When asked about Voorhees’ concerns, Varey denies any project that involves Maine, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of a future project linking Westover to Montreal and beyond.
“There’s no current project, but should there be market demand in the Montreal area, or markets that could be served from the Montreal area, we would discuss that with our customers,” she said. “Again, no current project, but there have been some public statements by potential customers that would illustrate potential support for reversal to Montreal.”
Cyr is similarly evasive, but revealed that the company’s safety record could bode well for any government review of a future reversal project.
“I think the way I’d characterize it is, the Portland Pipeline Corp. does not currently have an active project,” he said. “We’re also aware that there is interest in moving energy and doing so in North America. And we’re a pipeline company, and that’s what we’ve been since 1941, and I think when you look at our record, it’s a good one both from an environmental standpoint and safety of our employees.
“If we get to a point where have a project, I think we’ve had a reputation of being pretty open and outward with our stakeholders, and if we get to a point where we have a project, we’ll do the same.”
Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District, which pumps water from intake pipes in the Lower Bay of Sebago Lake to more than 200,000 customers in greater Portland, said water district officials attended the lecture last Thursday and intend to investigate the matter further.
“A couple of water resource specialists attended the event and they, because there is no current formal plan to reverse the flow, want to do some more research and keep an eye on the progress, find out a little more about the project, or the potential project, to find out if public notice and that type of thing would be required, including an environmental review,” Clements said.
Clements said the district would especially be interested in being part of an environmental review and help plan a spill response should tar sands leak from the pipeline.
Voorhees says a spill is a legitimate and serious concern for southern Maine residents given the age of the pipeline and Canadian companies’ recent record pumping tar sands.
During the public meeting last Thursday, speakers shared details of a July 25, 2010, leak of an Enbridge pipeline adjacent to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, when 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil leaked, gushing for 12 hours before company officials noticed. It was the largest pipeline leak in history. Due to the viscosity of the oil (caused by the sand) and how the oil sinks to the bottom of the water table – as opposed to conventional oil, which floats – cleanup efforts are still ongoing in the river.
“There is real reason to be concerned about what this type of tar sands oil can do to pipelines,” Voorhees said. “It’s more corrosive. It’s under higher pressure. And so I think folks in the region have a particular reason to be interested in this.”
Enbridge’s Varey, however, said pipeline transport of tar sands oil is safe and that the company is incorporating what it learned from the Michigan pipeline burst.
“Enbridge has been transporting crude oil produced from Canada’s oil sands region since 1968. There is nothing new about transporting this form of crude oil, and after many years of transportation on the Enbridge system, there is no evidence that internal corrosion is caused by transporting oil from the Canadian oil sands,” she said. “Enbridge will evaluate all information and learnings from this incident and apply that information to all of our pipeline operations. We will also share those learnings with the pipeline industry so other operators will also benefit from what we have learned.”
Cyr, of the Portland Pipeline Corp., said one of the two pipes in the Portland to Montreal pipeline leaked 12 barrels of oil in 2003 and that the other pipe hasn’t leaked in more than 40 years.
Voorhees isn’t comforted by the pipeline companies’ public statements. He said there are no established regulations regarding the construction of pipelines to handle the thicker oil. He is further alarmed by the use of unknown chemical additives to make the oil into a “diluted bitumen,” so the mixture can flow more easily through the line. The bitumen’s chemical makeup –which the company doesn’t entirely make public – is corrosive and environmentally toxic, Voorhees maintains.
Varey, however, said Vorhees’ statements on the chemical are misleading, and that the use of pipelines is growing safer with time.
“In an analysis of pipeline failure statistics in Alberta, ERCB found no significant differences in failure rates for pipelines handling conventional crude versus those carrying crude bitumen, crude oil, or synthetic crude oil,” she said. “While America’s pipelines have been increasing the transport of crude oil from western Canada, the rate of internal corrosion on pipelines in the U.S. has fallen over the last 30 years.”
Voorhees and other environmentalists’ are trying to get Mainers focused on the local pipeline, but the groups’ overarching concern is with tar sands production in general.
Despite figures that indicate tar sands could provide 100-plus years of supply at current oil consumption rates, and lower America’s reliance on foreign oil, the group says tar sands production is having a devastating impact on Alberta, where former boreal forest – which was described as “the Earth’s lungs,” since endless acres of trees take in carbon dioxide and put off oxygen – is being strip-mined at the rate of millions of acres, affecting fish and wildlife in the process.
“It needs to stay in the ground. If we extract that oil and we burn it, it’s game over for climate change,” Voorhees said. “That’s what NASA’s leading climate scientist has said about Canadian tar sands. It’s way worse than even traditional oil in terms of the amount of carbon pollution that goes up for every barrel that’s produced. This is not a conventional source of oil. They literally have to surface mine and then melt away the oil. It ends up releasing a lot more carbon into the atmosphere in its life cycle than conventional oil.”
While the reversal of the Sarnia to Westover section is under governmental review, it could be months or years before the Maine section of pipeline is discussed. And it’s unclear, Voorhees said, who would authorize that change.
“Who makes the decision? Good question,” he said. “It could be the president, as with Keystone XL, but it’s also an existing pipeline and this is a change of use. So, that’s something we don’t know. A lot is up in the air right now.”