New report sounds the alarm on tar sands in New England

Posted Wednesday, June 20, 2012 in Investigation

New report sounds the alarm on tar sands in New England

by Gina Hamilton

PORTLAND — A controversial new pipeline plan threatens drinking water and many natural areas in Maine and across New England and central Canada, according to a new report released June 19 by the Natural Resources Defense Council. A broad coalition of 19 organizations is sounding the alarm about rapidly emerging plans to bring tar-sands oil through Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The groups warn that the plan is unsafe and that a tar-sands oil spill could harm waterways, wildlife, and the tourism economy in Maine and across New England and central Canada.

The report, Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England, outlines an array of threats associated with the controversial tar-sands oil, often referred to as the “dirtiest oil on the planet.” Tar sands’ unique corrosive properties increase the prospect of oil spills and the U.S. government is currently trying to better understand whether the highly corrosive, toxic material can be safely transported through pipelines.

“Maine can’t afford to risk a devastating tar-sands oil spill in our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters just to provide big oil companies with bigger profits,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The health of Maine people and our economy and our way of life depend on clean water for drinking, for tourism, for our fishing industry, and for recreation. The risk of pushing tar sands through this pipeline is just too great.”

The report details differences that make tar sands more corrosive and harder to clean up in the event of a spill than the conventional crude oil that currently flows through the pipeline.

“Tar-sands oil corrodes pipelines, creating a greater risk of devastating oil spills along the route,” said Danielle Droitsch, NRDC senior attorney. “We cannot afford to ignore the climate and environmental dangers that come with the increasing amounts of tar-sands oil being pushed into the U.S. Enbridge’s effort to bring tar sands east is just one piece of a massive invasion of the U.S. from Canada’s dirty oil — and it has central Canada and the Northeast U.S. squarely on the front lines.”

In 2011, Enbridge applied to the Canadian National Energy Board to reverse part of its 62-year-old pipeline bringing oil from Sarnia, Ontario, to Montreal, Quebec. Last month, the company proposed to reverse the flow of its pipeline along the entire route, which would bring Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire one step away from a complete tar-sands pipeline that would bring tar-sands oil to Portland for export. The tar-sands industry has been in a desperate search for a port of export since the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects have become mired in controversy. 

A recent NRDC report outlined the increased threat of pipeline spills associated with tar sands. Piping tar sands through Maine puts many water resources at risk, such as the Androscoggin River, Sebago Lake, Casco Bay, along with highly valued fly-fishing rivers like the Crooked and Presumpscot.

“I’ve been guiding on the Crooked River and other pristine Maine waters for years,” said Maine fishing guide Brooke Hidell. “Maine’s large outdoor recreation industry depends on clean, healthy waters for salmon, brook trout, and other species — and an increased risk of a crude-oil spill into these waters from tar sands going through this aging pipeline infrastructure would be devastating to the entire Sebago Lake watershed.”

The pipeline runs within 1,000 feet of Sebago Lake, the ultra-clean source of drinking water for Portland and surrounding towns, supplying drinking water to 15 percent of Maine's population.

“The Maine Clammers Association is concerned about Maine’s water quality and our ‘brand,’ which depends on quality products and a pristine environment,” said Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association. “It's clear that pipeline technology is not safe enough to make tar sands an appropriate choice for Maine. From our perspective, the question is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ a spill will occur. At this point, allowing tar-sands oil to flow through Maine is like playing Russian roulette with our most important assets and with the ability of future generations to benefit from the economic opportunities that depend on Maine's clean, green, pristine reputation.”

“My chief concern is that this tar-sands material is significantly different, physically and chemically, from the oil currently in the pipeline and for which it was built,” said David Sait, a former Maine DEP official who worked on oil storage, spill prevention, and cleanup. “We also simply don’t have the technology to deal with and clean up this kind of oil if a spill were to occur. It’s not prudent to proceed when you can’t deal with the negative consequences. This is a real threat to water quality, fisheries, tourism — the whole economy.”

Tar-sands expansion to New England and central Canada also raises concerns about impacts on our battered climate. The U.S. Library of Congress’ research arm released a report in May confirming tar sands as the fuel with the highest level of climate-changing carbon pollution on the planet, far more than traditional oil, gasoline, natural gas, or other fossil fuels.

“Maine has made some significant progress to reduce global-warming pollution — because our health and prosperity depend on it — but tar sands threatens to obliterate that progress,” said Voorhees.

The groups called on U.S. and Canadian regulators to reject Enbridge’s efforts to reverse its pipeline through Canada and to conduct full reviews of the entire project, including a complete study of risks to the environment and human health. 

The full report and additional information on tar-sands oil can be found at

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