Politics

February 27, 2013

Scrutiny urged on piping of tar sands through Maine

Members of Congress want federal assurance that heavy crude transports wouldn't put Maine communities at risk.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The growing debate over the possibility of Canadian tar sands oil being piped through Maine has spread to Washington, D.C., as members of Congress urge the State Department to require a thorough review of any proposal.

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People march down Commercial Street in Portland on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 to protest what they say is a proposal to send tar sands oil from Canada through a pipeline to Portland harbor.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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PDF: Congressional letter to secretary of state on tar sands

Eighteen House and Senate members – including Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud – are asking Secretary of State John Kerry's office to require a permit and an environmental impact review of any attempt by Portland Pipe Line Co. to move crude oil from Montreal to South Portland.

"The State Department has the responsibility to ensure transnational pipeline projects serve the national interest and prevent projects that will put our communities and the environment at risk of destructive spills," the lawmakers wrote in a letter sent Tuesday. "A project that places American communities at risk without any tangible benefits is certainly not in the interest of our constituents."

The letter signed by 17 Democrats and one independent from eight states is the latest sign that the battle over so-called "tar sands oil" – most often associated with the Keystone XL Pipeline – is expanding to New England.

Also known as diluted bitumen, tar sands oil is a heavier crude extracted from sandy soils. After years of controversy, the State Department is expected to decide soon on TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry crude oil from the western province of Alberta through the central United States to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

But interest in shipping crude oil east -- likely through Maine to refineries in New Brunswick -- is rising because of global prices, political instability in oil-rich nations, and new oil fields in the U.S. and Canada. Last summer, companies shipped North Dakota crude through Maine via rail, and Canadian officials have already approved piping tar sands oil from Alberta to Montreal.

Portland Pipe Line is exploring the idea of moving the crude oil from Montreal to its facility in South Portland via existing pipelines that pass through northern Vermont and New Hampshire. The crude would then be shipped to refineries in the Canadian Maritimes.

The company, which hadn't responded to request for comment on the congressional letter, explored a similar proposal in 2008 but abandoned the project due to the economy.

The idea has sparked an intense lobbying campaign on both sides.

Groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environment Maine and the Sierra Club decry tar sands oil as even dirtier than conventional crude both in terms of sheer grit and the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases generated during extraction. They also contend crude from tar sands oil is more corrosive, raising the risks of pipeline spills.

Oil executives say tar sands oil is no more likely to spill and that the company is well prepared for accidents.

In Vermont, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require a new permit for functional changes to existing pipelines. Several Maine towns have passed resolutions against the shipments. Last month more than 1,400 people protested tar sands oil at a rally in Portland.

In recent weeks, the Canadian government and Portland Pipe Line have sent representatives to meet with town officials in Windham, Raymond and Portland. Last weekend Maine Gov. Paul LePage discussed the issue with Alberta Premier Alison Redford while in Washington.

"Supporting the development of the Canadian oil sands allows us to rely less on more distant and unstable foreign sources of energy while reinvesting in resources that also pay dividends back home," John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Portland Press Herald. "There is no credible evidence to suggest that Canadian oil sands crude is dirtier or more dangerous than other crude oil."

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