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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