Protests against a planned 1,600-mile pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries continue for a second week at the White House, where more than 600 people have been arrested. The protestors want President Obama to deny a federal permit for TransCanada’s Keystone XL project that would cross through several Western states and could put the nation’s largest aquifer in Nebraska at risk for contamination. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and several other environmental groups are warning of a related pipeline project that they say could make Portland, Maine, “the tar sands capital” of the Eastern United States.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine joined the Vermont Natural Resources Council and three Canadian environmental groups in asking the National Energy Board in Canada to deny a request from oil and gas giant Enbridge, Inc. to reverse the flow of crude oil in a portion of a pipeline that could eventually deliver crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, all the way to Portland, Maine.
“The tar sands is landlocked. It’s one of the largest, most destructive environmental energy projects on the planet right now,” says Pete Didisheim, the advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He says the tar sands are a geological formation under a very large boreal forest that has to be strip-mined in order to get the oil out.
“The oil is hard to extract and it’s very dirty, and it’s causing widespread environmental damage in Alberta,” Didisheim says. “And the strategy is to get that oil into pipelines to refineries so that it can then get out on the global market and make the world more dependent on this particularly environmentally destructive form of oil.”
Two years ago environmental groups cheered a decision by Enbridge to shelve a $346 million planned pipeline expansion known as Trailbreaker, which would have shipped western Canadian crude oil through Ontario and Quebec and into the United States.
Matt Price, the campaign’s director for the Canadian group Environmental Defence, says the decision was directly related to the economic recession at the time. But now Price sees Enbridge’s request for fast-track approval to reverse crude oil flow as a way of reviving the Trailbreaker project one small step at a time, without public input or regulatory scrutiny.
“If they were filing for the whole thing, they would actually be required to disclose a lot more information and explore a lot of the environmental impacts, so the current proposal doesn’t do that,” Price says.
Environmental groups are calling on Canadian regulators to require Enbridge to be more transparent about its plans, and to address potential economic, environmental and safety problems. According to a report by the Polaris Institute, Enbridge’s piplelines were involved in more than 700 oil spills during the decade that ended in 2009. A spokesman for Enbridge did not return a telephone call to MPBN for comment.
In order to deliver oil to Portland, Enbridge would also need cooperation from the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Company, which has headquarters in South Portland, and which would also need to reverse its flow of oil. Dave Cyr is the company’s treasurer.
“We had pursued this possibility in 2008, 2009, and placed the project on hold because of the economic downturn,” Cyr says. “And recently we’ve had discussions with industry and with Enbridge to gauge their interest about the possibililty of us resuming that project.”
Cyr declined to comment on the NRCM’s characterization of Portland as the “dirty tar sands oil capital of the Eastern United States” if the pipeline project is approved. And he said it’s too early to say how much oil might be brought into Maine.
Matt Price, of Environmental Defence, says there’s a correlation between the Keystone pipeline project that’s the focus of the D.C. protests, and plans for the Trailbreaker. Both projects, he says, reflect the industry’s desire to expand.
“Currently, the tar sands is producing about 1.5 million barrels a day. A lot of that goes to the U.S. in existing pipelines,” Cyr says. “And the plans for the industry are to actually quadruple in size by 2030 to go to six million barrels a day.”
Price says meeting that goal will mean building or accessing more pipelines. Environmental groups have yet to receive a response to their concerns from Canada’s National Energy Board.