Portland-Montreal Pipeline to be Converted for Shipping Tar Sands Oil into the US
ExxonMobil a major stakeholder in the pipeline, says new report
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Environmentally-minded Maine residents, already fighting plans for a highway connecting New Brunswick and Quebec that could be used to ship dirty tar sands oil into the United States, now face a new challenge — this time from oil giant ExxonMobil.
Image courtesy EcoWatch
Going in Reverse, a report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, and other environmental groups, names ExxonMobil as the majority owner of the Portland-Montreal pipeline that currently ships conventional crude oil from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec. The report says that Big Oil has plans to reverse the flow of pipeline in order to ship tar sands oil from Canada into the United States.
The ownership of the pipeline is as murky as the oil that runs through it. Residents of Maine will likely recognize the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, owner of the American section of the line, as the company that donates to the local land trust and baseball league. But they might not recognize Montreal Pipe Line Limited, of which Portland Pipe Line is a subsidiary. Or Imperial Oil Limited, which holds a majority stake in the Montreal Pipe Line. Nor will most know that Imperial Oil, in turn, is owned by ExxonMobil — the biggest oil company in the world.
“For people in New England, it seemed like a local operation,” says Elizabeth Shope, advocate for NRDC’s International Program. “In fact, significant Big Oil muscle with stakes in tar sands lies behind this project.”
ExxonMobil owns a 76 percent stake in the Portland-Montreal pipeline, and the company is looking to increase its investment in the pipeline. Over the past few years, ExxonMobil and Enbridge Energy Partners — which owns the stretch of the pipeline connecting Montreal to Sarnia, Ontario — have been seeking permits to reverse the flow of the pipeline and exchange tar sands oil for conventional crude. Enbridge could secure its final permits as early as the end of this year, the report says.
“They [Portland Pipe Line Co officials] act responsibly as they can, but that’s not the issue,” says Glen Brand, director of Sierra Club’s Maine chapter. “The issue is that tar sands is a very different kind of substance [than conventional oil], much more prone to accidents. We know what happened in the Kalamazoo River tar sands spill, owned and operated by Enbridge. It’s unthinkable for Mainers to envision the catastrophic accident that took place in Kalamazoo taking place in Maine.” The New England section of the pipeline would be ripe for catastrophe. The pipeline is 62 years old. In that time it has had only a few minor spills. But tar sands oil is more corrosive than conventional oil. The diluted tar sands bitumen travels through the pipelines at high pressure and acts like liquid sandpaper that grinds and burns its way through the pipe, increasing the chance that weakened pipelines will rupture.
Take the Keystone 1 pipeline as a cautionary tale. In its first year of operation, the pipeline experienced 14 spills in the US and another 21 in Canada. The first year is supposed to be the pipeline’s strongest, yet there were 35 spills. Enbridge’s spill in the Kalamazoo River — thought to be caused by corrosion — proved that tar sands spills are nearly impossible to clean up. (Read the Journal’s special report on how tar sands oil extraction is destroying the environment in Alberta, Canada.)
This past summer I wrote about residents in Maine who fought hard to block a proposed highway corridor that would bisect northern Maine, disrupt wildlife populations and possibly open the way for Canadian fossil fuel companies to boost their exports or gas and tar sands oils. ExxonMobil’s plans could prove to be more catastrophic, even though the pipeline is already built. In Maine, the pipeline runs within 300 yards of Sebago Lake, which supplies fresh drinking water for 15 percent of Maine’s population. That’s the same distance between the Kalamazoo River and Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline. Almost 200,000 people will be without water if the pipeline failed.
What may be most alarming about this development is how backwards it is, literally and figuratively. “New England has been headed in the right directions, [toward] clean energy and reducing carbon emissions for a long time,” says Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the NRDC’s Maine branch. “We’ve seen more renewable investments than other places, and passed laws like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This would be completely at odds with that trajectory.”
It looks like the environmentalists of Maine will have to gear up for another fight. But they are ready. “We’re not going to sit around and trust the safety of Maine communities to Enbridge Corporation or ExxonMobil,” says Brand.