Politics

May 6, 2013

Sides clash on tar sands oil moratorium

Environmental groups want time to study the risks, but the industry says the bill’s effects would be harmful.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Environmental groups and representatives of the petroleum and transportation industries faced off Monday at a legislative hearing on a proposed two-year moratorium on any transport of tar sands oil through Maine.

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The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard from environmental advocates who called for a temporary ban on pipeline transportation of tar sands oil, particularly before its potential environmental and health risks are more thoroughly investigated.

Industry representatives opposed the bill, saying that tar sands oil poses no more risk than other oil, and that a moratorium could cause higher energy prices and job losses.

L.D. 1362, sponsored by independent Rep. Benjamin Chipman of Portland, would impose a moratorium on shipping by pipeline and by rail and water. It also would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential health and safety effects and report its findings to legislators by Jan. 31.

The bill was prompted by the possibility that a pipeline that now sends oil to Montreal from tankers that dock in Portland Harbor could be used to bring in tar sands oil instead. The tar sands oil, piped east across Canada to Montreal, could be exported from the South Portland waterfront.
Tar sands oil is heavy crude oil from deep underground sand deposits. The largest deposits, which are flushed from the ground with steam, are in western Canada.

Environmentalists have launched an international campaign to stop the movement of tar sands oil, largely because of concerns that burning the fuels derived from it would drive up carbon emissions and accelerate climate change.

“I’m not a chemist,” said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom. “I don’t have a lot of data, but I have a lot of questions. I’m looking to the state for a plan. ... Hence, the need for a little breather” before any tar sands oil can flow through Maine.

But a moratorium would cause major supply problems and significantly higher gasoline and heating-oil prices, said John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council.

Interrupting transportation could limit future jobs and the economic contributions the industry makes to the state’s economy, said Larry Wilson, president and CEO of Portland Pipe Line Corp., which operates the line between Maine and Montreal.

Environmental and health advocates said pipeline transportation would pose health and environmental risks – particularly to water – all along the Maine route.

A spill along the projected pipeline route would imperil the Androscoggin and Crooked rivers, Sebago Lake – the drinking water source for Greater Portland – and Casco Bay, said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The state should wait until the full scope of potential impacts is better understood, he said.

The campaign against tar sands oil in Maine has focused on the Sebago Lake area, where towns have been encouraged to pass moratoriums or resolutions against oil movement.

Voorhees said, however, that the overriding issue involves establishing a comprehensive and clear permitting process, which should include a thorough environmental impact study.

It is unclear now whether the federal government or the state would have authority over permitting or prohibiting transportation of tar sands oil by pipeline. The issue is likely to be settled in court.

Regardless, said Robert Grindrod, president of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Co., no railway company operating in Maine could likely abide by the proposed moratorium.

Railroads in the U.S. are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Surface Transportation Board under federal law, and that specifically pre-empts state regulation in matters of interstate commerce, he said.

Chipman, the bill’s sponsor, said Maine needs more information before it allows “carte blanche” shipment of tar sands oil. “We need to know whether the revenue to the state of such an investment would justify the cost of a cleanup,” he said. “We need to know what kind of health risks would be at stake in the event of a spill.”

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at ncairn@pressherald.com

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Today's poll: Tar sands moratorium

Should the state adopt a two-year moratorium on transporting tar sands oil through Maine?

Yes

No

View Results