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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.

pipeline mapImage 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.

Nicky Ouellet
After teaching English for three years in Russia and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Nicky now writes for the Earth Island Journal.

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Some people are so ignorant as to call oil mixed into sand as Tar Sands.  Tar is a black mixture of hydrocarbons and free carbon obtained from a wide variety of organic materials through destructive distillation. Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat   It certainly does not come from the Oil sands. The oil sands is a centuries old oil spill that we are now cleaning up and restoring the land to growing natural vegetation.

By Dominic House on Mon, August 29, 2016 at 11:18 am

Here in South Portland, Maine we haven’t stopped fighting to keep the Portland - Montreal Pipeline from bringing tar sands through New England to South Portland, Maine and into Casco Bay. Check out our work at Our city is currently writing an ordinance to prevent the pipeline from building the combustion units and other structures that would allow tar sands shipment and export out of our bay. We cannot have another spill like that in Mayflower, Arkansas - their pipe is the same age as ours, made in the same flawed manner and reversed for tar sand oil transport. We are on twitter too @ProtectSoPo.

By Crystal Goodrich on Fri, February 14, 2014 at 8:35 pm

GO TAR SANDS GO! Let’s fuel our economy with this gift from God! It’s all natural and comes from the ground just like our vegetables. Don’t listen to the global warming hoaxters. The only dangerous green house gasses are what comes out of their mouths—they just want to wreck the economy so we can go back to the good old days of poverty and soviet style tyranny.

By chris o. on Tue, February 11, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I hope you will be covering the events unfolding on the 23rd and the 26th of January both in South Portland and in Portland. This is a good article and exposes who really owns the Portland Montreal pipeline.  I would hope it could be condensed in some way as a informational handout to folks living close to the existing pipeline route.

By Nicole d'Entremont on Mon, January 14, 2013 at 2:28 pm

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