Thursday, December 12, 2013
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A train carrying 104 tank cars of crude oil from North Dakota rolls through Massachusetts on Saturday before crossing Maine en route to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Rail officials say they expect a growing number of oil trains to cross Maine, part of a trend to move crude from major reserves in Alberta, Canada, and the upper Midwest.
Kevin Burkholder/Eastern Railroad News
“Rail can land oil at Saint John at a better price than by sea,” Burkhardt said.
The most immediate factor that could limit business is the availability of tank cars, which are in great demand nationally, Burkhardt and others say. It takes roughly six days to go from North Dakota to New Brunswick, plus offloading time.
If rail delivery grows, it could help Maine’s struggling freight railroads and the shippers that depend on them, said Chop Hardenbergh, editor of Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports. That could help improve service to Maine’s paper mills and attract new shippers, he said.
“It certainly helps our railroads and our overall economy,” Hardenbergh said.
Commerce aside, the trend has caught some of Maine’s environmental activists by surprise. They oppose the methods used to extract this petroleum – especially the so-called tar sands oil from Alberta – saying they are highly polluting.
In Maine, activists suspect that the Portland Pipeline Corp. will want to reverse the flow of its system, which moves crude oil west from Portland Harbor to Montreal, in order to send tar-sands oil east. The company has said it has no current plans to do that.
Environmental activists oppose tar-sands oil for two main reasons. They say the more-corrosive nature of the oil poses a greater risk of pipeline ruptures, and they point to a large spill in Michigan in 2010 as evidence.
Spills appear to be less of an issue with rail transport, however. Tank cars are typically doubled lined and made of hardened steel to survive a derailment.
But staff members at the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine both say fracking and tar-sand extractions are unsustainable, dirty technologies, whether the product is moved by rail or pipeline.
“We don’t want to see that supported in any way,” said Glen Brand, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. “We don’t want to see it moved to market.”
But small quantities of tar-sands oil already have rolled across Maine.
Bob Grindrod, president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said that his line handled a small, test delivery destined for the Irving refinery a few months ago. The potential to move more depends on the cost and how hard it is for Irving to refine the thick oil, he said.
Irving Oil rarely discusses its business practices, and didn’t respond to email questions from the newspaper. But Grindrod said he’s aware that the refinery is ramping up its crude offloading capacity from two cars a day to 100 cars, whether it comes from the Canadian tar sands or the Bakken field.
“They are investing rather heavily,” he said.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org