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.
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.”
The State Department requires a “Presidential Permit” as well as an environmental impact assessment for new pipelines that cross the international border. The department also has the discretion to impose those review requirements on changes to existing pipelines, however.
In 2008, the State Department declined to review Portland Pipe Line’s original request, a decision that the 18 members of Congress described as “extremely troubling” in their Feb. 26 letter. They urged Kerry — a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts — to get involved this time.
“We believe that a changeover to carrying tar sands is a significant alteration in function and environment risk for existing pipelines, and that the State Department should require a new permit and environmental review for these changes to occur,” the letter reads. “Tar sands is a greater hazard to the communities through which it is shipped than conventional oil, as illustrated by the 2010 Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill in Michigan — the most expensive pipeline spill in U.S. history.”
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at NRCM, applauded the letter because at present everyone is unclear about how the process will unfold.
“Now is the time,” Voorhees said. “The State Department needs to look into this and make that determination.”
Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, did not sign onto the letter, but both indicated that they support a review process. King reiterated his concerns about the pipeline proposal Wednesday.
“I am skeptical of the idea,” King said in a statement. “It’s a different substance going in a different direction at a different pressure and temperature than we have traditionally pumped through that pipeline for the last 60 years. I would support an effort to require oil companies to undergo a full and appropriate level of review if they wish to reverse the flow.”
Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley noted that there is no official proposal to pipe tar sands oil through Maine.
“Should anyone actually seek approval, Senator Collins would expect that an appropriate environmental impact review be completed,” Kelley said.
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