WINDHAM – An oil pipeline executive and an official from the Canadian consulate were surprise visitors at a meeting Tuesday night in Windham centered on the Lakes Region’s role in the growing “tar sands” oil debate.

The meeting, hosted by the Windham Town Council, was held to hear from Environment Maine. The group believes the company in charge of the pipeline – which runs from South Portland to Montreal, transecting nearly every town in the Lakes Region – is working to reverse that flow, bringing tar sands oil from Alberta through Maine. The tar sands oil, the group says, could be an environmental disaster for the area.

The Portland-Montreal Pipeline Co., which operates the pipeline, has steadfastly denied that a plan is in place, while touting their safety record. But Environment Maine and others remain convinced, and the opposition has grown in recent months. In mid-January in Casco, voters passed a non-binding resolution against allowing tar sands oil through their town, and last weekend more than 1,000 people attended a protest in Portland.

Tuesday in Windham, Larry Wilson, president and CEO of the pipeline company, and Aaron Annable, a consul in charge of foreign policy and diplomacy service at the Canadian consulate in Boston, showed up at the meeting to dispel what they say are misleading claims by environmental groups.

Some at the meeting, including Martin Shuer, who along with fellow Windham resident Priscilla Payne pushed councilors to hold the forum, found that telling.

“I think it’s interesting that while they are publicly denying this is an intended project, they’re suddenly showing up when there is public discussion that might preemptively stop that from happening,” Shuer said.

Shuer and others have asked the council to issue a resolution similar to Casco’s. The resolution would have no teeth, since the U.S. president and the State Department alone have the ability to halt transnational pipeline certifications, much as it did last year with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in the middle of the country.

Wilson said he was there to set the record straight.

“We’re here because we want to be sure that everything that any city or any town is considering that could be discriminatory toward projects that could have benefits to our organization and benefits to the community would have a fair and open conversation and discussion about the potential impacts of a potential resolution,” Wilson said.

Wilson also reiterated the company’s stance disputing claims about an active reversal proposal that environmental activist groups, such as Environment Maine and Natural Resources Council of Maine, have been repeating for more than a year now. Wilson is open to transporting oil sands, and said the product would not pose any greater risk than heavy crude, which is routinely shipped via pipelines that crisscross the country.

“We do not have a project at this time, but we are actively pursuing and considering every opportunity that increases the value of our wonderful assets,” Wilson said of the three pipes that run between Montreal and the tank farms in South Portland. “And we’re not the least bit ashamed of the fact that we want to do all that we can with our wonderful assets. It just depends on what the market would want to bring through the pipeline. That’s why we’re here.”

Wilson also said the pipeline through Maine has a convincing 62-year safety record and has been a good neighbor to the pipeline’s hundreds of nearby landowners. He said that any reversal or transport of so-called tar sands, which in the industry are known as oil sands or diluted bitumen, would be safe.

“This is not a new theme for the industry to produce or for refineries to consume or for pipeline companies to transport. It’s been done for decades,” Wilson said. “Statistics support pipelines are the safest, most environmentally sound, most efficient and effective way to transport commodities to market.

“We have nothing against those who transport by small trucks, large trucks, by rail or by ship. They can all operate safely and effectively. It’s just that transportation by pipeline has proven its ability to protect people and the environment, and that’s why we’re proud of our industry.”

Environment Maine’s Emily Figdor does not buy the claims that the industry hasn’t already set its sights on reversing the flow from Montreal to Portland, which is the deepest East Coast port and is readily capable of handling large oil tankers that would transport the heavier crude to worldwide refineries. Figdor spent 45 minutes Tuesday night discussing the potential catastrophic impacts a tar-sands spill could have on the Lakes Region, Sebago Lake and Windham.

“We fully believe there is a project,” Figdor said after the meeting. “The permitting process is moving forward in Canada. We expect that process to move forward quite quickly, so this is our opportunity right now to stop the project.”

Figdor is referring to plans by Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge to reverse the flow of its Line 9, which runs between Sarnia, Ontario, and Montreal. Enbridge spokesperson Graham White said the company would be transporting Alberta oil sands through the pipeline, as well as other crudes to two refineries that could handle the new influx of oil.

Figdor, however, said those Canadian refineries don’t have sufficient capacity, and that if the Canadian government allows the reversal, oil sands would be “on the doorstep of Maine,” needing only a presidential permit to send tar sands south across the Maine border to awaiting ships in Portland.

“The critical issue is that oil floats and tar sands sink,” she said. “So, when we’re thinking about what this project might mean, to the Lakes Region and Windham, we have to think what a tar-sands oil spill could mean, and once you have a spill, there is no going back. It would change Sebago Lake forever. It is so different and as such poses grave risk to our land and water.”

Figdor clarified after the meeting that the presidential permit is also “up in the air.” Figdor said Portland Pipeline already has a permit dating from 1999, but that a change in product – from light crude to oil sands – could put that permit up for review. She is unclear whether that is the case, however, which is why her group and others are pushing local governments along the pipeline to pass resolutions asking for federal officials to conduct an environmental review.

Annable, the Canadian consul, drove two-and-a-half hours to speak for a few minutes at the hearing, which limited most public input to three minutes.

Neither Annable nor the officials from the American Petroleum Institute and Portland-Montreal Pipeline told town staff prior to the meeting that they would be in attendance, so Figdor was alone on the dais and afforded a lengthy presentation, while the others had to speak during public comment, which is limited to three minutes. However, Wilson, the pipeline executive, was given about 10 minutes to speak by Vice Chairman Kevin Call, who oversaw the meeting in Chairman Matthew Noel’s absence. Councilor Peter Anania was also absent.

Annable said after the meeting that he came to Windham to defend the oil sands industry, which he said is being grossly misrepresented by activists such as Figdor.

“Our mandate is not only to strengthen relations between Canada and the United States but also to defend Canada’s interests when we see issues like this come up,” Annable said. “And a lot of the story is getting lost in terms of a lot of the environmental improvement that has happened since the 1990s in terms of new technologies [at the Albertan oil fields] that have reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re looking at new mining techniques, which are much less intrusive to the land… But I think the most important thing for me is to deliver the message that both the federal and Alberta governments take the responsibility very seriously regarding development of oil sands in terms of strict regulation and environmental improvement.”

Since all sides of the issue could not be thoroughly heard Monday night, councilors discussed the possibility of holding a second informational meeting.

Addressing Wilson’s request to come before the board, Call said Windham “will make good” on an invitation to the industry or others that support oil sands transport through the region, “so we will make time for you to present your case,” Call told Wilson after Wilson requested a “fair shake.”

Shuer, one of the organizers of the event, said he, too, would welcome an additional hearing.

“I think it’s important to engage a discussion which needs to take place in this community,” he said. “I would personally advocate for a public forum with a facilitator, much as we had for the sewer issue this fall.”

Shuer is holding out hope that the Windham council signs a resolution against so-called tar sands, but he’d prefer a town meeting vote on the issue, similar to Casco, which approved a resolution in mid-January.

The Raymond Board of Selectmen is also discussing tar sands with Figdor at its regular meeting Tuesday, Feb. 12. As of yet, board Chairman Sam Gifford said no others have come forward to offer testimony in Raymond.

“I think the more people we hear from on any issue, the more of a democracy we have,” Shuer said. “And I think that’s what the sewer referendum was all about. And the number of people who were in this room tonight encourages me and matters to me.

“Yes, some rules were suspended, but the fact that we could engage in a conversation I thought was a good thing.”

A tar-sands protest rally held last weekend in Portland drew more than 1,000 people, organizers reported. Windham discussed the controversial issue Tuesday.Courtesy photo

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