Maine’s lifting of a moratorium on energy corridors this week won’t change Canada’s opposition to liquefied natural gas tankers sailing through New Brunswick waters to proposed terminals in Washington County, the Canadian Prime Minister’s office said Wednesday.

“Our position remains the same,” said Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “These are sovereign waters.”

Ottawa’s reaction followed a press release by LNG advocates in Maine noting that the corridor ban had ended and urging Canada to drop its opposition to tanker traffic through Head Harbour Passage, the access route to two proposed terminals in Passamaquoddy Bay. Those projects, in Calais and Robbinston, are seeking state and U.S. permits. But without some compromise by Canada, they cannot be built.

The blunt response suggests that Maine’s LNG supporters have made no progress in trying to persuade Canada to soften its longstanding position.

After a year of study and debate, Maine lawmakers adopted a comprehensive law to protect the state’s financial and environmental interests, if and when developers build billion-dollar transmission corridors connecting Canada and the Northeast. The state banned those projects after Fort Reliance, the parent company of New Brunswick-based Irving Oil, began studying an energy corridor through Maine. Fort Reliance operates a new LNG terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick.

At the urging of Maine LNG supporters, lawmakers had banned new energy corridors from Canada. The idea was to put pressure on the Canadian government, making a link between allowing transmission corridors across Maine and opening an energy corridor through New Brunswick’s waters. But it doesn’t appear Canada made that connection.

“The press release is nice and we welcome it,” said Neal Burnham, a spokesman for the Canadian Consulate in Boston. “But it doesn’t change the principles by which we oppose tankers.”

Head Harbour Passage is an internal waterway under the control of Canada taht is subject to international treaties, Burnham said. Canada says it won’t allow fuel tankers through the narrow channel because of concerns about the potential impact of a spill or ship grounding on tourism, fishing and property values. Ottawa took the same stance in 1975, when U.S. developers proposed building the Pittston oil refinery in Eastport.

The issue resurfaced in recent years after LNG developers, unsuccessful in persuading other communities along the Maine coast to host a terminal, arrived in Washington County. High unemployment and energy costs have made some residents and officials there more receptive, and they are disappointed by Canada’s latest response.

“It’s important for Canada to understand that this is an important issue on our side of the border,” said Maine Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

Raye, who grew up in Eastport, said the Canadian government’s position amounts to a threatened blockade of U.S. waters. “The U.S. does not accept that erroneous interpretation,” he said of Canada’s control of water access to the terminal sites.

That view has repeatedly been expressed by the U.S. State Department, according to a letter on the subject last fall to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. All commercial traffic, including LNG tankers, has a “nonsuspendable right of innocent passage into and out of the region through Head Harbour Passage,” the State Department asserted.

The department responded to Collins after she wrote President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking them to take up the matter with Harper when he visited Washington in September.

But at least publicly, Canada has rejected the United States’ interpretation.

Harper made that clear in January, when dignitaries from both sides of the border dedicated a new bridge linking Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick. In response to a media question, he replied: “Our position is that these are sovereign Canadian waters. We’ve been opposed to tanker traffic through this passage, and we continue to make representations to the United States government at the highest levels on this.”

Diplomacy typically takes place out of public view. But at the Canadian Consulate, Burnham insisted that despite rumors to the contrary, no negotiations are taking place between Washington and Ottawa.

The corridor moratorium was originally promoted by Maine Jobs First, a coalition of business and labor interests that wants to build the LNG terminals. Tony Buxton, a lawyer representing the Calais LNG venture, noted Wednesday that despite the dispute, Canada remains America’s largest trading partner and close ally.

“We continue to be optimistic that this matter can be worked out, as other matters have, through diplomacy,” he said. 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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