Maine has long played a key role in our nation’s oil and gas transportation. The embodiment of this fact is Portland, which serves as one of the largest oil ports on the Eastern Seaboard and receives more than 200 oil tanker deliveries annually.
But what many forget, and others are trying to discredit, is Maine’s long-standing role as a significant pipeline state bridging the United States and Canada. Beginning in 1941, when German forces threatened seaborne oil deliveries to Canada during World War II, the Portland–Montreal Pipe Line safely transported crude oil from South Portland to Canadian refineries.
That amounts to more than 70 years of safe crude oil transportation across Maine. But despite this legacy, some pipeline opponents still contend that their safety is in jeopardy — to the point where rumors continue to fly over whether Maine pipelines will transport what they say is a hazardous crude oil derived from the Canadian oil sands (Maine Voices, “Much at stake for Maine as possibility of tar sands pipeline looms,” Oct. 15).
Just as there is no reason to fear unsubstantiated rumors, however, there is equally no reason to fear an energy product that has been transported safely throughout the United States for decades.
Known in the industry as “diluted bitumen,” crude oil derived from the Canadian oil sands is still a relatively new idea to many Americans, making it an easy target for opposition campaigns intent on derailing oil pipeline projects at any cost. So opponents incessantly describe it as “different,” “dirty” and “dangerous.” But the only thing dirty about crude oil from the Canadian oil sands is the secret they don’t want you to know: It’s just oil.
At first blush, oil sands crude in its raw form appears unusually viscous, which draws a contrast in the minds of those of us accustomed to only thinking about oil as a liquid. But it’s not transported in this form. Instead, bitumen is separated from clay, sand and water and is diluted with lighter petroleum liquids like natural gas condensate before it enters a pipeline. Even with its unique extraction process, oil sands crude is actually very similar in chemical makeup to other common heavy crude oils from Mexico, Venezuela — even California — that have been successfully transported by pipelines throughout the U.S. for more than 40 years.
Since it began keeping detailed statistics, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal regulatory agency for the U.S. pipeline industry, has not reported a single case of pipeline corrosion caused by oil sands crude. Despite opposition claims that the 2010 incident on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan could have been avoided had the line transported a less “corrosive” crude oil, the National Transportation Safety Board recently concluded that it was external conditions only — and specifically not what was flowing through it — that caused the pipe to rupture.
In the same way that pipelines must be engineered to carry conventional crude oils, pipelines that connect the oil sands to U.S. markets must meet the specifications necessary to transport any oil, no matter if it’s light or heavy. Even so, oil sands crude is not uncommon.
What is not average, however, is the tremendous economic opportunity presented by the oil sands. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, for every two jobs created in Canada from oil sands development, one is created in the United States. More than 2,400 American companies supply goods and services to support the development of the Canadian oil sands, including the expansion of U.S. pipelines and refineries — which not only secures well-paying job opportunities for Americans, but also generates significant revenue that stays here at home.
Investing in the Canadian oil sands makes far more than just economic sense. As Michael Makovsky, a former Defense Department official, recently told The New York Times, at a time of significant unrest in the Middle East, we should be trying to reduce our reliance on oil going through the Strait of Hormuz and not increasing imports from places like Saudi Arabia. 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.
There is no credible evidence to suggest that Canadian oil sands crude is dirtier or more dangerous than other crude oil. Equally, according to Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, there are no current plans to reverse the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to transport these oil sands crudes.
With these points in mind, there is no reason to continue letting fossil fuel opponents lead you to believe that Maine is at any elevated risk from oil sands crudes or the pipelines that have operated safely in Maine for years.
John Quinn is executive director of the New England Petroleum Council in Boston.