The tar sands oil industry scored a regulatory victory on Thursday when the Canadian National Energy Board approved a plan by energy giant Enbridge to reverse the flow of Canada's 'Line 9' oil pipeline eastward from Ontario to Montreal.
The decision has regional environmental groups sounding the alarm, warning the industry is now one step closer to being able to transport tar sands and other corrosive crude oil from the west, through Ontario and Quebec, over the border into Vermont, and then to the Maine coast for export.
The ruling, which comes four months after the government held public hearings on the proposal, will bring oil from western regions of Canada and the U.S., including tar sands from Alberta and heavy Bakken crude from North Dakota.
Groups such as The Natural Resources Council of Maine, Sierra Club, 350 Maine, 350 Vermont and Environment Maine say the reversal of Line 9 is "the final link" before the Maine-based Portland Pipe Line Corp. reverses its own pipeline that runs through New England, completing "energy giant Enbridge’s path from the oil sands of Alberta to tankers in the Atlantic port of South Portland," the Bangor Daily News reports.
Fears that the New England pipeline would soon be reversed to transport Canadian tar sands to the Maine coast were sparked last year when oil companies poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign that ultimately defeated an anti-tar sands referendum in the coastal town of South Portland, Maine. The referendum would have barred a proposal to construct a tar sands pipeline terminal on the city's waterfront.
So now, as the Canadian National Energy Board has taken the next step towards bringing tar sands to the New England border, many are alarmed.
“Thursday’s decision brings toxic tar sands oil right to New England’s doorstep, and one step away from flowing south through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “This decision should put Maine on high alert for the threat of tar sands transportation through our state. That would be unacceptable. Now is the time for the U.S. State Department to commit to an environmental review of any tar sands project in our state.”
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While the pipeline reversal and expansion will only be officially allowed when Enbridge fulfills 30 conditions laid out by the Energy Board, including an emergency response plan, many say a spill within the fragile habitats the pipeline runs through will be inevitable. One dissenting board member raised concern over the possibility of a spill, saying Enbridge should first be required to demonstrate that it has "legally enforceable access to financial resources which are and will continue to be adequate to fund any reasonably foreseeable NEB-regulated obligations which arise as a result of a spill."
"People have serious concerns about the safety of this pipeline because it's old and leaky," said Gillian McEachern, a spokeswoman for Canada's Environmental Defense. "Our process for reviewing major pipeline projects is seriously broken. This decision puts people across Ontario and Quebec at serious risk of oil spills. If there is a spill, tar sands oil is much harder to clean up and more expensive to clean up than conventional oil that's going through it now."
And as the Bangor Daily News reports, should Enbridge attempt to bring oil through New England, several Maine towns have already passed resolutions "declaring opposition to the transportation of oil sands bitumen across their borders, including Casco, where the pipeline passes near Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for 15 percent of all Mainers."
“Tar sands pose the most significant threat to Sebago Lake that I’ve seen in my 34 years of fishing on the lake,” said Eliot Stanley, a board member of the Sebago Lake Anglers Association. “The fact is that a tar sands pipeline spill into the Sebago-Crooked River watershed would devastate the lake, its fisheries and southern Maine’s clean drinking water supply."
"We cannot permit another Kalamazoo River catastrophe," said Stanley in reference to Enbridge's massive 2010 pipeline spill into the Michigan river. "This irresponsible action by the Canadian Energy Board poses a threat to all Maine citizens and public officials.”
Vermonters in more than a dozen towns took similar action this year on "Town Meeting Day," voting to oppose the reversal of the pipeline.
“Vermonters have already loudly signaled opposition to transporting tar sands across our rivers and farms, alongside lakes, and through communities of the Northeast Kingdom,” said Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation Senior Counsel. “A spill would have a devastating impact on our water supplies, wildlife habitat and tourism industry. And any transport of tar sands through Vermont would encourage growth of an industry that contradicts all of our state’s leadership and hard work on moving toward cleaner sources of energy.”