Environmentalists say Enbridge is one step closer to bringing tar sands through a corner of Vermont

Vermont environmentalists believe a new application by a Canadian oil company to reverse the direction of its pipeline is the latest signal that the company is preparing to bring tar sands oil through Vermont to the Maine coast.

Enbridge Oil, a Canadian oil company that controls a pipeline stretching from Alberta to Montreal, applied in November to the Canadian National Energy Board to reverse the pipeline’s flow between Ontario and Quebec in an attempt to find a route to export tar sands oil from the Canadian west.

Environmentalists believe the oil company plans to move the oil through the Northeast Kingdom towards Portland for export, and they warn that such a move could up the risk for oil spills in New England and have cataclysmic effects on climate change. The oil company denies any such plan.

The newest application to the energy board appears to be part of a phased strategy to export tar sands oil, said Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council. Mogerman says Enbridge knew it would meet massive resistance to an overarching plan to export tar sands oil through New England, so it has taken an incremental approach.

“It’s broken up into smaller pieces,” Mogerman said.

Enbridge spokesman Graham White said the purpose of the company’s move to reverse the pipeline is to bring “Canadian light crude to Canadian refineries.” He said the company would be better served by focusing on its Canadian refining processes instead of exporting tar sands oil to foreign ports.

“The economics [of exporting through the East Coast] just don’t make sense, quite frankly,” White said.

White did say that tar sands oil could flow between Ontario and Montreal, but it would be refined to the point of being basically the same as any other light crude oil product once it got to Montreal.

“It’s the same light crude product that it would be in any other transmission lines,” White said.

Getting regulatory approvals to reverse pipeline flow is much easier than obtaining permission to build a new pipeline, Mogerman said.

But environmentalists think they can see the writing on the wall. Earlier this year, the oil company received permission to reverse its pipeline from Alberta to Ontario to flow west to east.

The company also has been in court over plans to alter a pumping station in Quebec near the Vermont border that, environmentalists say, would only be needed to pump oil into a pipeline that stretches across Vermont to Portland, Maine. Then on Nov. 29, the company filed an application to reverse the pipeline to flow west to east all the way from Alberta to Montreal, and to increase the pipeline’s capacity from 240,000 barrels a day to 300,000 barrels a day.

Mogerman believes the oil company is desperate to have tar sands oil reach a deep-water port for export.

The company has been stymied recently by regulatory pushback. Enbridge sought to create new pipelines from the Canadian west coast to the Gulf of Mexico with a route across the Plains states. President Barack Obama decided earlier this year not to fast-track consideration of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Because of its lack of export options, tar sands oil is often refined in the Midwest region and sold to refineries at a discount because of a lack of other viable options, Mogerman said. Enbridge needs to export oil to Latin America, Asia and Europe to make tar sands extraction more profitable.

“They have plenty of access to the U.S. market; they just don’t like it,” Mogerman said.

The company is now turning to existing infrastructure to move tar sands oil to the coast for export, he said. Getting regulatory approvals to reverse pipeline flow is much easier than obtaining permission to build a new pipeline, he said.

“They are looking for Plan C,” Mogerman said.

In past public statements to the press, neither the oil company nor the company that owns the U.S. section of pipeline that crosses New England has admitted to a plan to export tar sands oil through Portland or any other east coast port.

Spokesmen have said that the pipeline would give the company access to greater refinery capacity; environmentalists countered that the amount of oil flowing would overwhelm the refining capacity and market demand for Enbridge’s refineries in Ontario and Quebec.

Jim Murphy, a Vermont wetlands and water resources lawyer at with the National Wildlife Federation,  says the company has been quietly changing its public relations strategy.

In May, a company spokesman admitted in Canadian parliamentary proceedings that it plans to refine and export tar sands oil through its East Coast pipeline network, saying that the oil could be piped to Maine and then shipped to St. John, New Brunswick, for refinement, Murphy said. The Canadian oil company TransCanada also has been talking to New Brunswick and Quebec officials about the possibility of moving more Western Canadian crude oil into the region, according to the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper.

Environmentalists have long contended that tar sand oil extraction is too carbon-heavy of a process to be a reliable energy source, and its use could accelerate climate change. They also charge that tar sands oil is more toxic if spilled and more difficult to transport safely.

Enbridge officials have denied in the past that tar sands oil presents unique logistical challenges, but the National Academy of Sciences is studying whether the oil should be treated differently in pipeline regulations. Murphy said the thicker oil must be mixed with natural gas products to flow properly, and the process can create a more corrosive environment in New England’s decades-old pipeline system.

Enbridge has come under fire for its handling of an 800,000 gallon spill of tar sands oil in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010. Murphy said because the oil binds to the environment in a different way than traditional oil, the Michigan spill will leave a mark on ecosystems for generations to come.

“The Kalamazoo River is never going to really be cleaned up. It’s not the place you’re going to want your kids swimming in for a very long time,” Murphy said. “A major spill like that and the Northeast Kingdom’s story could be a very difficult one.”

Because a pipeline already exists in the Northeast Kingdom, the regulatory hurdles for bringing the oil through Vermont could be much lower than with the Keystone project, according to Ben Walsh, a clean energy advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Enbridge already gained tentative, unofficial permission to reverse flow from federal and regional officials in 2008, but the company abandoned the plan when the economy went sour, Walsh said.

“It could actually be an easy time getting the flow reversed,” Walsh said.

Environmentalists are attempting to mobilize the same constituency that protested against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to contact elected officials before Enbridge floats a plan to bring tar sands into the region, Walsh said.

Walsh and Murphy are hoping to pressure the Obama administration and regional officials to send a clear signal that tar sands oil should not flow through the northeast region. They warn environmentalists not to be lulled by what they perceive as an incremental approach to export tar sands through Vermont to Maine.

“They propose a little bit, a little bit more, and the next thing the one last piece is to go through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine,” Walsh said. “We need to make sure that our friends and neighbors know that this is coming.”

Craig Idlebrook

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13 Comments on "Environmentalists say Enbridge is one step closer to bringing tar sands through a corner of Vermont"


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Cynthia Browning
4 years 1 month ago
It is important to remember that Enbridge is a major stockholder in Gaz Metro, the owner of our new near monopoly electric utility Green Mountain Power. So they may have great political influence in Vermont related to pipeline issues. Last session I introduced a bill that would have required legislative approval of the GMP/CVPS merger. If this had been passed, we could have had hearings and discussions of the implications of having an international oil pipeline company own a significant share of our electric utility, along with all of the other issues related to the merger. Unfortunately, the Administration and… Read more »
Randy Koch
4 years 1 month ago

Now there should be a labelling bill so that anyone who slimes into the Statehouse as a GazMet lobbyist could be identified. This way, the citizenry won’t be left to posit some kind of Dark Matter when the legislature starts flying a course set by GazMet as if on automatic pilot.

Peggy Sapphire
4 years 1 month ago

If any remain doubtful about the corporatization of Vermont & its utter destruction of our state’s natural resources (i.e. indistrial wind turbines on our mountain ridges), then let this looming crisis be the wake-up call before another corporate-caused devastation (oil spills, leaking/broken almost 50 yr old pipelines,contaminated lakes,acquifers,residential wells). Enbridge/Gaz Metro/Green Mountain Power are not benevolent – they are in it for the Green they really believe in, Environment be damned.

Steve Comeau
4 years 1 month ago

The environmentalist position should not be “None of the above”. If oil is really bad for the environment, and I think it is, then what is the logical replacement? If the environmentalist position is to be against all energy sources, then they can’t be taken seriously.

Randy Koch
4 years 1 month ago

Steve is welcome to take people seriously or not but in our system the unfortunate truth is that critics must tackle each project which the profit-seeking “marketplace” vomits up. It’s this system which can’t be taken seriously not the critics. I believe there is a loose consensus among environmentalists that decentralized, locally-owned power generation emphasizing solar would be preferable. But since neither banks nor power companies are democratically controlled, this system will never evolve and critics must continue to be opposers.

4 years 1 month ago

350VT is coordinating a campaign to put opposition to tar sands oil on the Town Meeting agenda in your town. Check out our web site, http://www.350vt.org for information on the campaign. We should keep corrosive, toxic “diluted bitumen” (tar sands synthetic crude) out of the 62 year old pipeline in the Northeast Kingdom AND phase out the development of the tar sands in Alberta. The pipelines are the fuses to a huge “carbon bomb” that will make it impossible to slow or reverse climate change…ever.

Rob Bast
4 years 1 month ago
A point of order on the pipeline, which passes not far from a family homestead in Lancaster NH. Right now, it conveys crude oil through two lines, 18″ and 24″ diameter, which it was built to handle. It goes through NH and VT, and although it isn’t the most attractive cleared ROW out there, it has been doing what is supposed to do for decades with a good record. The point of order: the pipeline just passes through VT, no sales or deliveries occur here. The question: Is this tar sands oil of concern because it is known to be… Read more »
Moshe Braner
4 years 1 month ago
The replacement for fossil fuels is to use a lot less energy. And yes that means changing our way of life. And giving up on “economic growth” (which is no longer beneficial). But we don’t have a choice about it. Both climate chaos and the growing scarcity of affordable fuels are going to end the oil age, like it or not. We need to see this clearly, and start putting our dwindling resources into what will actually help us decades down the road: rebuild the railways (far more energy efficient for freight than trucks), insulate houses, preserve farm land.
David Usher
4 years 1 month ago

Reasonably priced energy is what we need for a healthy economy. Tar sands oil is part of the solution.

Craig Idlebrook
4 years 1 month ago

As the reporter of this piece, I am sorry to say that there are some factual errors in this story as pointed out to me by Graham White of Enbridge. Please stand by for a correction of the record.

4 years 1 month ago
From Graham White, manager of business communications from Enbridge: Your article dated December 4 titled: “Environmentalists say Enbridge is one step closer to bringing tar sands through a corner of Vermont,” contains several inaccuracies, which I would have been happy to address in my initial interview with the reporter Craig Idlebrook, but was not asked for confirmation or comment on these points: – “Earlier this year the oil company received permission to reverse its pipeline from Alberta to Ontario to flow west to east.” Enbridge received permission from the National Energy Board on July 27 of this year to reverse… Read more »
Emmett Grogan
4 years 1 month ago
MORE PIES LESS PIPELINES! Sunday December 16th 11am-1pm Plainfield Community Center , 153 Main St, Plainfield, VT $5-$10 donation to support First Nation resistance in the Northwest. Pie and live music! Interested in learning more about the proposed tarsands and natural gas pipelines in Vermont? Want to hear about how these local issues tie into an international resistance to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure? Want to eat pie? This event will include presentations from 350VT and Rising Tide VT about the Trailbreaker pipeline in the NEK and the proposed natural gas pipeline down the Champlain Valley and under Lake… Read more »
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