Susan Connolly, a mom from Michigan, describes what it was like to wake up to an oil spill in her community in July 2010, and what were the impacts to her children and wildlife to this day.
Poisoned air. Sunken gunk. A clean-up nightmare. What we’re learning from the oil sands
‘DilBit’ dump into the Kalamazoo River.
Posted Apr. 20, 2012 | Posted by: Kim Huynh
Enbridge, the Canadian oil giant responsible for a massive tar sands oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan not yet two years ago, now wants to pipe tar sands oil—the world’s dirtiest oil—through New England with its Trailbreaker pipeline project.
The Trailbreaker tar sands pipeline project
In August 2011, Enbridge filed a permit application with Canada’s National Energy Board to revive a previous tar sands project, called Trailbreaker. Trailbreaker would transport tar sands oil along an approximately 750-mile route from Ontario and Quebec in Eastern Canada through Vermont, New Hampshire, and terminating in Portland, Maine’s Casco Bay, where the oil would be exported into the international market on super tankers.
The oil industry’s scheme to link the Midwestern pipeline system through eastern Canada and across New England to East Coast ports for export to refineries in the Gulf Coast or overseas was shelved a few years ago and defined as commercially nonviable. The Trailbreaker project would reverse the direction of oil flowing through two major pipelines—Enbridge Line 9 and the Portland/Montreal Pipeline.
Enbridge’s permit application to the Canadian National Energy Board for their Line 9 pipeline reversal is an indication that it’s once again putting the Trailbreaker project back on the table. Although Enbridge has claimed this is a standalone project, the application appears to signal the rebirth of Trailbreaker.
By dividing up the project into two smaller segments, Enbridge could be attempting to shield itself from the type of scrutiny faced by tar sands pipelines like TransCanada’s Keystone XL. Enbridgeacknowledged in late 2011 that it was actively pursuing plans to bring tar sands to Ontario, Quebec, and New England.
Tar sands: more toxic than conventional oil
The extraction and processing of tar sands oil is one of the largest industrial operations in the world. Tar sands extraction requires strip mining huge tracts of the pristine Boreal Forest in Alberta, Canada—an area the size of Florida is slated for extraction.
Tar sands oil emits three times more greenhouse gases during production than conventional gasoline and about three barrels of water are polluted and dumped in toxic pools (called tailing ponds) for every barrel of oil produced. These processes use enough energy to make tar sands oil production the fastest-growing contributor to Canada’s carbon pollution and the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.
Tar sands extraction also harms the health and cultural traditions of indigenous communities living downstream from the extraction sites and has been connected to high rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism in the area.
Tar sands pipelines: built to spill
Tar sands pipelines have an abysmal safety record, with a spill rate three times the national average for conventional oil in some parts of the US, putting communities at risk of devastating oil spills and pollution to air and drinking water.
Pipeline safety regulators at the Department of Transportation haven’t yet studied the safety of pipelines that carry tar sands crude or set forth specialized regulations for such pipelines, despite safety concerns unique to corrosive tar-sands oil compared to conventional crude oil. These pipelines must operate at higher temperatures and pressures to move the thick tar sands through a pipe and are subject to severe problems with leak detection and safety issues from the unstable mixture. Tar sands crude is particularly dangerous for older pipelines like the Trailbreaker pipelines, which were constructed during World War II.
Enbridge was responsible for a million gallon tar sands oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in June 2010. Two years later, the clean-up costs have surpassed $700 million, residents are still sick from the spill’s toxins, small businesses are still hurting, property values are down, and miles of river remain closed. Now Enbridge wants to pipe tar sands oil through New England with its Trailbreaker project.
Trailbreaker: threatening New England’s natural and cultural landscapes
Trailbreaker would cut through New England’s most important waters, including Sebago Lake, home to a native species of landlocked Atlantic salmon and the major drinking water resource for greater Portland, Maine’s largest metropolitan area. It also terminates at Casco Bay, a large, rich estuary near Portland, Maine that is home to a variety of coastal natural resources and a thriving marine economy.
Trailbreaker would also put at risk Grand River Basin, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, Victory State Forest, and Androscoggin River. A spill along Trailbreaker’s corridor could harm rivers, lakes, and bays that are vital resources for millions of people in Canada and the United States.
As Canadian regulators begin to consider Enbridge’s plan, it’s crucial that people on both sides of the border speak out. Friends of the Earth is joining with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and other environmental and public interest groups in New England and Canada to deliver more than 25,000 comments to the Canadian National Energy Board before the deadline this Monday.
By showing that people in both Canada and the U.S. are taking a stand against tar sands oil, you can help us turn up the heat on the National Energy Board to conduct a full accounting of the pipeline’s risks to people’s health and the environment—and continue to build the cross-border coalition we need to stop the tar sands industry once and for all.
More information on the Trailbreaker project:
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/keystonetrailbeaker.pdf
The Pembina Institute: http://www.pembina.org/pub/2317
Court of Quebec ruling could hinder plans to reverse the flow of a pipeline to carry oil sands from Montreal to Maine, environmentalists say.
WASHINGTON—A little-publicized Canadian court decision has thrown a monkey wrench into an on-again, off-again proposal to transport oil from tar sands mines in Alberta to a U.S. seaport in Maine for export.
Last month, judges with the Court of Quebec rejected a Montreal-based oil pipeline company’s request to construct a pumping station near the Quebec-Vermont border. The court case pitted environmentalists and Quebec citizens against the owners of a South Portland, Maine-to-Montreal, Quebec oil pipeline.
Halting the pumping station is part of an overarching strategy by environmentalists to challenge Canada’s expansion of tar sands oil extraction. They fear the station is the linchpin in opening an eastern gateway for the flow of a dirtier grade of oil from western Canada to Maine. From there, it would likely be shipped to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
The pumping station is a crucial piece of Montreal Pipe Line Ltd.’s plan to reverse the flow direction of its pipeline. Currently, that pipeline carries conventional crude oil from a tanker facility in South Portland to refineries in Montreal. It traverses 236 miles through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec.
From Montreal, the offshore oil is now funneled onto Enbridge Inc.’s Pipeline 9, which travels west all the way to Sarnia, Ontario.
Montreal Pipe Line’s request to reverse the flow on the South Portland-Montreal pipeline has had environmentalists on edge for several years because it came in tandem with the Trailbreaker project that Enbridge Inc. first floated in 2008.
That proposal by Enbridge—a separate oil transport company based in Calgary, Alberta—entailed switching the flow on 524-mile Pipeline 9 from westerly to easterly. The 30-inch diameter pipeline currently has the capacity to move 240,000 barrels daily.
Montreal Pipe Line and Enbridge have not talked publicly about collaborating to pump tar sands oil to Maine’s Atlantic Coast—but environmental organizations connected the dots long ago.
Enbridge blamed market conditions when it officially shelved its Trailbreaker proposal in 2009. But green groups say the company backpedaled on Trailbreaker when challengers put the reversal idea under a microscope. Conservationists suspect the company is now trying to accomplish the same goal in piecemeal fashion.
As evidence, they point to Enbridge’s 2011 application with Canada’s National Energy Board to reverse the flow on Pipeline 9 between Sarnia and Westover, Ontario. Westover is roughly halfway between Sarnia and Montreal.Line 9 Reversal/Credit: Enbridge
Steven Guilbeault is deputy director of Equiterre, the Montreal-based environmental advocacy organization that spearheaded the legal challenge of the pumping station.
“Enbridge has been saying that its request for a reversal on phase one has nothing to do with getting tar sands from Alberta to Portland,” he told InsideClimate News. “But it’s hard for us to believe that.”
In an interview, Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Varey did not deny that the company might eventually try to reverse the direction of the entire Pipeline 9. But right now Enbridge is focused on phase one, the Sarnia-to-Westover segment, she said. Public hearings on that undertaking are scheduled for May 23 to 25.
Reversal of the Sarnia-to-Westover section is a priority of Imperial Oil Ltd., one of Enbridge’s key customers, Varey said. Imperial Oil has explained to Enbridge how an easterly flow would benefit its refinery near Westover and access to the Ontario market. A subsidiary of ExxonMobil, Imperial produces more than 200,000 barrels a day from tar sands mines, and claims proven oil sands reserves of more than 2.4 billion barrels.
Initially, Enbridge expects the reversed segment to carry light crude oil. But it will be capable of transporting a range of western Canadian crude oil from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Capacity would start at 50,000 barrels per day and eventually grow to 200,000 barrels per day.
Stopping the pumping station on the Montreal-to-South Portland segment will be a fleeting victory, environmentalists agree, if Enbridge’s Pipeline 9 is transformed into a route for shipping tar sands oil east.
Halting the Pumping Station
In May 2009, the commission in Quebec charged with protecting the province’s agricultural land approved Montreal Pipe Line’s request to rezone land to accommodate a pumping station in Dunham, Quebec, a community near the Vermont border. Company engineers had determined that station infrastructure would have to be situated at that spot to boost the heavy crude over the Sutton Mountains on its journey from Montreal to South Portland.
The agriculture commission’s decision was reversed in 2010 after Equiterre appealed to Quebec’s administrative tribunal. Last November, Equiterre continued to challenge the pipeline company’s quest for the pumping station as the case advanced to the Court of Quebec.
Judges with that provincial court agreed with the administrative tribunal that the zoning approval for the pumping station was invalid. Both bodies found that the agricultural commission failed to require Montreal Pipe Line to show that the pumping station could be built without encroaching on agricultural property. The pumping station’s footprint would measure roughly five acres.
The latest court ruling was issued Feb. 16. It was written in French and didn’t garner attention in the American press.
“That’s twice in a row we’ve been told by a Quebec judicial body that we are right so we are very pleased,” Guilbeault said. “But obviously it is far from being over.”
Attorneys for Montreal Pipe Line have 30 days to file an appeal over the latest decision. Though they had indicated interest in doing so, it does not appear that they had followed through as of Monday morning. Spokespeople did not return requests for comment from InsideClimate News.
Advocacy organizations such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine maintain that Montreal Pipe Line has tried to escape public scrutiny by saying it hasn’t applied for a permit to reverse the pipeline flow between South Portland and Montreal.
“The company has really tried to downplay this but I don’t think they’re fooling anyone,” said Dylan Voorhees, the Maine council’s clean energy project director. “If they appeal the court decision, it makes it clear the reversal is actively on the drawing board. The only reason to have a pumping station is to reverse the flow.”
Three pipelines actually are buried along the right-of-way route between Portland and Montreal. A 24-inch diameter pipe continues to carry oil while an 18-inch diameter line is currently deactivated. The third and smallest pipe, 12 inches in diameter, was mothballed in the early 1980s.
Suncor and Imperial Oil Ltd. are majority owners of the privately held Portland-Montreal pipeline. Suncor is Canada’s largest producer of oil sands.
Canadians, New Englanders Unite
Conservation organizations in Canada and New England have combined forces to try to hold Enbridge and Montreal Pipe Line accountable for their pursuit of pipeline reversals.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to do is to prevent tar sands from coming to Quebec and going on to Maine,” Guilbeault said. “We feel that a signal needs to be sent to the federal government and oil companies that what they are doing is unacceptable.”
The tar sands extraction industry is Canada’s fastest growing source of emissions of planet-warming gases. Citizens in both countries also are worried about the risks of pipeline spills and other accidents. In Maine, for instance, they are worried about the potential impact on Sebago Lake, a significant source of drinking water, and Casco Bay, vital to the state’s fishery and tourism industries.
Glen Brand, director of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club, said advocates in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are strategizing to prevent Enbridge and Montreal Pipe Line from succeeding with their pipeline reversals. For instance, they are exploring whether the Montreal-to-South Portland portion would require a presidential permit because it crosses an international border.
“We think there are ways to stop these projects on a number of fronts,” Brand said. “They deserve public and technical scrutiny beyond what they have received.”
Environmental organizations are eager to start talking about an energy strategy for eastern Canada and the northeastern United States,” said Guilbeault, of Quebec’s Equiterre.
“Companies think provinces shouldn’t have any say about these matters, about where pumping stations and pipelines should go,” he said. “They say our national energy infrastructure should be under federal jurisdiction. We think it should be shared.”
By John Balentine firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND – As a proposal to build an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast has emerged as a contentious issue on the national political scene, a similar debate has started locally, regarding an existing pipeline that runs from the tank farms in South Portland and through the Lakes Region.
President Barack Obama last month denied a permit for TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline, but Senate Republicans this week moved to counter that action. Pipeline supporters say it would help lower the country’s reliance on oil from the Middle East, but the project has raised the ire of environmentalists, who argue the thick tar sands that would be delivered increase the likelihood of a disastrous spill and would speed up climate change.
Similar arguments are being made about the pipeline that for 71 years has transported crude oil from the tanks in South Portland to Montreal, by way of the Sebago Lake region. Local and national environmental groups said last week there is a project in the works that would reverse the pipeline’s flow so Canadian tar sands could reach Portland for tanker delivery to American refineries, placing the lake – and southern Maine’s drinking water supply – in danger.
Officials from Portland Pipeline Corp. and Canada-based Enbridge, two companies that discussed reversing the flow of the pipeline in 2008, say they do not have a current project in place that would impact Maine. Besides, they said, the companies boast a solid environmental record, and moving oil by pipeline is growing safer.
However, at a public informational meeting last Thursday at University of Southern Maine in Portland, representatives from the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club told a standing-room-only crowd that the companies were wrong on both accounts, and that the fight over the right use of the pipeline was just beginning.
Local issue now
Sebago Lake, in particular, is playing a prominent role in the groups’ efforts to halt any talk of pumping tar sands through the state. The pipeline runs from South Portland to Westbrook and through the Lakes Region towns of Windham, Raymond and Casco, crossing Panther Run and the Crooked River, which feed Sebago Lake.
Environmentalists are worried that the thick tar sands, which require pipelines to run at higher temperatures and velocity compared to conventional crude oil, could cause a leak in the underground pipeline, as has happened in other parts of the country when tar sands were introduced into pipelines built for lighter oil.
Enbridge and Portland Pipeline Corp. in 2008 discussed reversing the flow of oil from Montreal to Portland with the Trailbreaker Project, though it was eventually scrapped due to the economic downturn.
“The Trailbreaker project had included the potential reversal (of the Portland-Montreal pipeline), but we’re no longer pursuing that project,” said Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Varey.
Varey’s denial is seconded by David Cyr, secretary treasurer and spokesman for the Portland Pipeline Corp.
“We have a genuine interest in moving energy through our pipeline and we don’t have a project currently, so it’s a little speculative for me to say anything more than that,” Cyr said.
However, while the companies deny a renewed collaboration, Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, isn’t convinced.
“They are very clearly pursuing parts of the project formerly known as Trailbreaker,” he said. “They have an active application for the phase 1 of the Trailbreaker project. It’s not called Trailbreaker – they’re not using that name anymore – but it’s a phase 1 of the same proposal. It’s currently before the energy board in Canada.”
Varey denies Voorhees’ claims, repeating that Enbridge doesn’t have a project in the works to reverse the pipelines, although she does say the company is pursuing reversing the flow of a pipeline that leads from Sarnia, near Lake Huron, to Westover, Ontario.
Voorhees, who said Enbridge is “landlocked now and would love nothing more than to access a port on the Atlantic,” said the Sarnia-to-Westover reversal is the first phase of what he believes is a full reversal all the way to Montreal and Portland. The next best project to the Keystone XL pipeline, he said, is reversing flow to Portland, where tankers could pick up the tar sands oil for ocean transport to East Coast refineries.
Voorhees also said a company that owns a pumping station on the Canadian side of the Portland-Montreal pipeline is seeking a permit to make updates to its station that would allow it to push heavier tar sands.
“So all the pieces are still pointing in the same direction, that the company still intends ultimately to bring oil in the other direction,” Voorhees said.
When asked about Voorhees’ concerns, Varey denies any project that involves Maine, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of a future project linking Westover to Montreal and beyond.
“There’s no current project, but should there be market demand in the Montreal area, or markets that could be served from the Montreal area, we would discuss that with our customers,” she said. “Again, no current project, but there have been some public statements by potential customers that would illustrate potential support for reversal to Montreal.”
Cyr is similarly evasive, but revealed that the company’s safety record could bode well for any government review of a future reversal project.
“I think the way I’d characterize it is, the Portland Pipeline Corp. does not currently have an active project,” he said. “We’re also aware that there is interest in moving energy and doing so in North America. And we’re a pipeline company, and that’s what we’ve been since 1941, and I think when you look at our record, it’s a good one both from an environmental standpoint and safety of our employees.
“If we get to a point where have a project, I think we’ve had a reputation of being pretty open and outward with our stakeholders, and if we get to a point where we have a project, we’ll do the same.”
Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District, which pumps water from intake pipes in the Lower Bay of Sebago Lake to more than 200,000 customers in greater Portland, said water district officials attended the lecture last Thursday and intend to investigate the matter further.
“A couple of water resource specialists attended the event and they, because there is no current formal plan to reverse the flow, want to do some more research and keep an eye on the progress, find out a little more about the project, or the potential project, to find out if public notice and that type of thing would be required, including an environmental review,” Clements said.
Clements said the district would especially be interested in being part of an environmental review and help plan a spill response should tar sands leak from the pipeline.
Voorhees says a spill is a legitimate and serious concern for southern Maine residents given the age of the pipeline and Canadian companies’ recent record pumping tar sands.
During the public meeting last Thursday, speakers shared details of a July 25, 2010, leak of an Enbridge pipeline adjacent to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, when 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil leaked, gushing for 12 hours before company officials noticed. It was the largest pipeline leak in history. Due to the viscosity of the oil (caused by the sand) and how the oil sinks to the bottom of the water table – as opposed to conventional oil, which floats – cleanup efforts are still ongoing in the river.
“There is real reason to be concerned about what this type of tar sands oil can do to pipelines,” Voorhees said. “It’s more corrosive. It’s under higher pressure. And so I think folks in the region have a particular reason to be interested in this.”
Enbridge’s Varey, however, said pipeline transport of tar sands oil is safe and that the company is incorporating what it learned from the Michigan pipeline burst.
“Enbridge has been transporting crude oil produced from Canada’s oil sands region since 1968. There is nothing new about transporting this form of crude oil, and after many years of transportation on the Enbridge system, there is no evidence that internal corrosion is caused by transporting oil from the Canadian oil sands,” she said. “Enbridge will evaluate all information and learnings from this incident and apply that information to all of our pipeline operations. We will also share those learnings with the pipeline industry so other operators will also benefit from what we have learned.”
Cyr, of the Portland Pipeline Corp., said one of the two pipes in the Portland to Montreal pipeline leaked 12 barrels of oil in 2003 and that the other pipe hasn’t leaked in more than 40 years.
Voorhees isn’t comforted by the pipeline companies’ public statements. He said there are no established regulations regarding the construction of pipelines to handle the thicker oil. He is further alarmed by the use of unknown chemical additives to make the oil into a “diluted bitumen,” so the mixture can flow more easily through the line. The bitumen’s chemical makeup –which the company doesn’t entirely make public – is corrosive and environmentally toxic, Voorhees maintains.
Varey, however, said Vorhees’ statements on the chemical are misleading, and that the use of pipelines is growing safer with time.
“In an analysis of pipeline failure statistics in Alberta, ERCB found no significant differences in failure rates for pipelines handling conventional crude versus those carrying crude bitumen, crude oil, or synthetic crude oil,” she said. “While America’s pipelines have been increasing the transport of crude oil from western Canada, the rate of internal corrosion on pipelines in the U.S. has fallen over the last 30 years.”
Voorhees and other environmentalists’ are trying to get Mainers focused on the local pipeline, but the groups’ overarching concern is with tar sands production in general.
Despite figures that indicate tar sands could provide 100-plus years of supply at current oil consumption rates, and lower America’s reliance on foreign oil, the group says tar sands production is having a devastating impact on Alberta, where former boreal forest – which was described as “the Earth’s lungs,” since endless acres of trees take in carbon dioxide and put off oxygen – is being strip-mined at the rate of millions of acres, affecting fish and wildlife in the process.
“It needs to stay in the ground. If we extract that oil and we burn it, it’s game over for climate change,” Voorhees said. “That’s what NASA’s leading climate scientist has said about Canadian tar sands. It’s way worse than even traditional oil in terms of the amount of carbon pollution that goes up for every barrel that’s produced. This is not a conventional source of oil. They literally have to surface mine and then melt away the oil. It ends up releasing a lot more carbon into the atmosphere in its life cycle than conventional oil.”
While the reversal of the Sarnia to Westover section is under governmental review, it could be months or years before the Maine section of pipeline is discussed. And it’s unclear, Voorhees said, who would authorize that change.
“Who makes the decision? Good question,” he said. “It could be the president, as with Keystone XL, but it’s also an existing pipeline and this is a change of use. So, that’s something we don’t know. A lot is up in the air right now.”
Panther Run pipeline area
The Portland Pipeline Corp’s crude oil pipeline extends from South Portland to Montreal, Canada, making its way by Panther Run in Raymond. Panther Run feeds Sebago Lake, which is located just beyond the trees in the photo above. While pipeline officials say there is no project in place to reverse the pipeline’s flow and ship tar sand oil instead of crude oil, environmentalists worry that the more toxic tar sands could damage the 60-year-old pipeline and leak into underground water supplies and Sebago Lake, greater Portland’s water supply. (Staff photo by John Balentine)
Raymond pump station
Portland Pipeline Corp.’s Raymond Pump Station is located on Route 121 at the intersection with Plains Road. Surrounded with fence, the area is off-limits to the public. (Staff photo by John Balentine)
Methodist Road crossing
The pipeline crosses Methodist Road in Westbrook, not far from Route 302.