April 24, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Lobbying for tar sands oil is pretty slick

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Ask, as the saying goes, and you shall receive.

Push, on the other hand, and Triss Critchfield will push back.

"I just don't like dishonesty," Critchfield said Tuesday. "And it's been years since I experienced such a blatant push poll."

It happened on Saturday. The phone rang in Critchfield's home in South Portland and the woman on the other end asked if she'd like to participate in a poll about the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line ... and oil from tar sands ... and reversing the flow of the 236-mile underground conduit between Portland and Montreal to help get crude from the vast reserves in western Canada to tankers in Portland Harbor.

Fire away, replied Critchfield.

Question 1: Was she familiar with the phrase "Canadian tar sands?"

"Yes," replied Critchfield.

Question 2: Did she favor or oppose extracting oil from them and shipping it, via pipelines, across North America and down through Maine?

"Oppose."

That's when things got interesting.

"She began asking questions like, 'If you knew that transporting oil through the pipeline was safer because this, that and the other thing, would it change your level of opposition?'" recalled Critchfield. "That's when I realized, 'Uh-oh, I think I know which side commissioned this poll.'"

Meaning?

"It wasn't a poll just to see how you feel right now about the pipeline or the issue," Critchfield recalled. "It had an objective."

So Critchfield confronted the pollster.

"You know, this is sounding more like a push poll to me than an actual poll," Critchfield said, referring to the common tactic in which political campaigning masquerades as scientific research.

"No," the caller quickly countered. "This is not a push poll."

That's when Critchfield hung up.

If operators of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line are to be believed, no actual plan exists to turn what they call their "asset" into an outlet for crude oil squeezed from massive underground sand deposits in faraway Alberta.

Mind you, they readily admit they wouldn't mind if there was such a project. But at the risk of being repetitious, there currently is no such project.

All of which would sound a lot more convincing if not for all the politicking going on -- from home telephones all over Maine to the Capitol Hill offices of Maine's congressional delegation.

Last weekend's poll was conducted, according to Critchfield's caller ID, by Opinion Search -- a Canadian public research firm with offices in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

And who hired Opinion Search? Good question.

"Unfortunately, we can't comment on our client surveys," replied Opinion Search spokeswoman Janette Niwa when asked Tuesday who paid for the poll.

Hmm ... maybe it was the pipeline folks?

"I have no problem telling you that no one has been authorized by Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to conduct a poll on our behalf -- or even to use our name," said Larry Wilson, president and CEO of the South Portland-based pipeline company, when contacted by phone Tuesday.

That brings us to the American Petroleum Institute, which recently hired Dan Demeritt, a Maine political consultant (and columnist for this newspaper), to handle its public relations in this neck of the woods.

"We don't really discuss our polling strategy, so I can't really help you out there," said Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman at the institute's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In short, fellow Mainers, someone out there seeks our support for running tar sands crude down a pipeline that passes uncomfortably close to Sebago Lake -- a prospect that has already drawn formal opposition from the towns of Bethel, Waterford, Casco and Raymond.

But who that someone might be, and why they're trying to nudge public opinion in favor of a plan that purportedly doesn't even exist, is apparently none of our business.

Easier to identify are the lobbyists for the not-yet-really-a-project.

Two weeks ago, Portland-Montreal Pipe Line President Wilson and Secretary-Treasurer David Cyr went to Washington, where they met up with Peter Lidiak, pipeline director for the American Petroleum Institute.

They then made the rounds to the offices of Sen. Angus King, Sen. Susan Collins, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Rep. Mike Michaud, imploring each lawmaker from Maine to at least keep an "open mind" about the project that is not yet even ... well, you know.

At each stop, the visitors got the same response: If there is an attempt to switch the pipeline to tar sands oil, be prepared for lengthy -- and entirely appropriate -- government scrutiny. Starting with the "presidential permit" required by the State Department for new pipelines that cross the U.S. border.

King told the group that reversing the flow of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line "is presidential-permit-worthy. And it's up to the petroleum industry to convince me otherwise."

Collins, in a prepared statement Tuesday, recalled that the pipeline officials "were not definitive in response to my questions" about exactly what they were up to.

"Should the company decide to seek approval for this new use," Collins added, "I would expect that appropriate environmental impact reviews would be completed."

Ditto for Pingree and Michaud, both of whom signed a letter in February (along with 16 other members of Congress) calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to require a presidential permit and an accompanying environmental impact statement "to determine the risks to the region and ensure adequate protections for our communities."

(What risks? See: Major pipeline spills of tar-sands crude in 2010 in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, and just last month in Arkansas.)

Pipeline President Wilson said he had no choice but to go to Capitol Hill to defend his company against "a constant barrage of attacks" by environmentalists and media types "trying to keep our company from doing something we've done safely for 72 years."

Fair enough.

But what about that push poll?

Where does trying to change Triss Critchfield's mind about tar-sands oil fit into preserving the good name of a company that -- one last time -- has no active plan to pump the stuff through Maine?

"I don't know about this polling question," Wilson repeated. "You'll have to talk to the people conducting the poll."

If only it were that easy.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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