March 31, 2013

Pipeline company points to record of safety in tar-sands oil debate

Officials with the Portland-to-Montreal line offer a closer look at their protocols to try to alleviate opponents' fears about environmental risks.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — There's a faded poster on the wall of the Portland Pipe Line Corp.'s control room here with the heading: "Why Shut Down a Pipeline?"

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Unloading arms remove oil for storage from the oil tanker HS Electra at Portland Pipe Line’s pier facility in South Portland.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The headline in Life magazine from July 21, 1941, captured the importance of a construction project that was moving at lightning speed across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. “New Pipeline is Rushed to Help Meet the East’s Threatened Oil Shortage.”

Britain was under attack from Nazi Germany. The United States was poised to join the war and was helping its ally. Oil was needed overseas, and the U.S. was diverting 50 tankers a day from the southwest, with crude normally refined for the East Coast and eastern Canada.

Complicating the problem was the fact that refineries in Montreal couldn’t receive crude in the winter, when the St. Lawrence River iced over.

The solution was a 236-mile pipeline from Portland. It could operate year round and cut off a 2,000-mile round trip by water to Montreal.

Work began when the snow melted. Crews assembled in Gorham, N.H. One raced east toward Portland; the other headed west to Montreal. They worked 12-hour days, seven days a week.

The pace is documented in the 1941 film “The Story of the Portland to Montreal Pipeline.” It documents how the section from Gorham, N.H., to Montreal was built at “emergency speed,” with diesel bulldozers clearing a right-of-way through two miles of forest a day, followed by trenching and pipe-laying crews.

On Aug. 1, 1941, oil executives and government officials assembled on the U.S.-Canadian border at Highwater, Quebec, for a ceremony to connect the pipe. On Nov. 4, 1941, a tanker of crude oil from South America docked at the new pipeline pier in South Portland, a month ahead of schedule.

This original, 12-inch-diameter pipeline was taken out of service in 1982. Two larger pipes were later installed – an 18-inch pipe in 1950, and a 24-inch pipe in 1965.

– Staff Writer Tux Turkel

Nine reasons are listed, including the detection of a leak and unexplained pressure changes. It also reads, in big letters: "The Full Authority is Yours."

That message is aimed at the controller, whose decisive action -- perhaps alone in the middle of the night -- could make the difference between a destructive oil spill and a routine procedure.

The poster may be old, but its words convey a new urgency.

Pipeline safety has become a front-page concern, thanks to an extensive international campaign by environmentalists opposed to the production and movement of so-called tar-sands oil from Alberta.

The campaign has highlighted a disastrous accident in Marshall, Mich., where a pipeline carrying heavy crude from western Canada burst in 2010, releasing 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River and adjacent floodplains. Controllers at Enbridge Inc., which owns the pipeline, ignored repeated alarms and didn't turn off the pumps for 17 hours, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, leading to the largest onshore spill in U.S. history.

The Enbridge mess is still being cleaned up today. That fact, and a pending decision by President Obama about whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, have led to unprecedented scrutiny on how the nation's petroleum pipelines are operated.

Public interest is likely to intensify, following Friday's rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas that was carrying heavy crude from western Canada. Crews had cleaned up 12,000 barrels of oil and water by Sunday, and no cause has yet been made public. The leak forced the evacuation of 22 homes in a subdivision, according to news reports.

In northern New England, the Portland Pipe Line Corp. has compiled an impressive safety record in 72 years of operation. Yet the company finds itself under an intense public microscope. Interest has been magnified by fears -- highlighted by environmental groups -- that Portland Pipe Line is preparing to pump tar-sands oil through its system.

Tar-sands oil has become an international rallying cry for environmental activists, who say fully developing the resource will vastly speed up climate change. They charge that the oil forced from massive underground sand deposits in Alberta is especially corrosive to pipelines and that its properties make it harder to move and clean up. The industry counters that the oil is no different than the heavy crude it has safely transported for decades.

In Maine, the Portland pipeline operators have hurt their public relations efforts by issuing confusing, equivocal pronouncements: There's no active project to reverse the flow of its lines and move tar-sands oil from Alberta to Portland Harbor, they repeat, but to boost sagging business and maximize the company's assets, they are exploring the market potential.

At the same time, though, the company has earned credibility with a solid safety record. Since 1941, it has pumped more than 5 billion barrels of crude oil from South Portland to refineries in Montreal, through a 236-mile underground pipeline. Very little of that oil has escaped into the environment. The largest spill, 26 years ago, was 2,500 gallons.


This performance has earned the company high marks from government regulators and industry trade groups. Its quiet competence has made the pipeline a good neighbor to most residents, although for security and other reasons, the company typically reveals little about its day-to-day operations.

Following a request earlier this month, the Maine Sunday Telegram received exclusive permission to observe and report on control room operations while a ship was unloading to the tank farm, as oil was flowing to Montreal, and when workers were performing a key maintenance job meant to assure the integrity of the pipeline.

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Additional Photos

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The tanker HS Elektra unloads its cargo of oil from the North Sea at The Portland Pipe Line operation in South Portland earlier this month.

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Tom Hardison, operations director for Portland Pipe Line Corp., says not every load of oil delivered to the company is accepted for transmission.

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Peter Fickett, a controller at Portland Pipe Line, monitors aspects of the oil flow between South Portland and Montreal during his 12-hour shift in the company’s control room.

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Pipeline workers prepare the scraper-launching trap in mid-March before their brush “pig” device was to begin its two-and-a-half-day trip to Montreal to clean the 24-inch-diameter pipe.

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Workers in 1941 use cranes called boom cats to lower sections of the Portland-Montreal pipeline into the ground in Vermont. Crews moved at “emergency speed” to meet wartime oil transportation needs.

Courtesy Northeast Historic Film


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