Tokar: Voters to address oil pipeline issue at town meeting

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Brian Tokar, the director of the Plainfield-based Institute for Social Ecology and a lecturer in Environmental Studies at UVM. He lives in East Montpelier.

On Town Meeting Day, March 5, voters in some 25 Vermont towns, including Burlington and Montpelier, will have an opportunity to vote to challenge proposed changes to an aging Northeast Kingdom oil pipeline that could have a serious impact on Vermont and our entire region. Recent visits to Montpelier by the CEO of the pipeline company — owned by ExxonMobil’s Canadian subsidiary — along with environmental officials from Alberta, highlight the importance of this issue for our future.

The Portland-Montreal Pipeline was built more than 50 years ago and now pumps up to 400,000 barrels of oil a day from the port of Portland, Maine, to customers in Montreal and beyond, passing through 10 Northeast Kingdom towns. It is connected to a vast oil pipeline network across Canada, and companies like Enbridge – a partial owner of Green Mountain Power – have applied to reverse the flow of a now-unused section of pipeline so they can transport highly corrosive and toxic material from the Alberta Tar Sands across Canada and northern New England.

Why is there so much opposition to getting oil from the tar sands? Tar sands mining is a massively destructive business, and has been called the most environmentally damaging project on earth.

Company officials continue to equivocate about their plans to reverse the pipeline through Vermont, but the evidence suggests such a plan is in process, including efforts to build a new pumping station in Dunham, Quebec, just across the border. With people across the U.S. and Canada challenging proposed projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and the proposed Northern Gateway through British Columbia, this “Plan C” option could become the path of least resistance for getting tar sands to the coast for export.

Why is there so much opposition to getting oil from the tar sands? Tar sands mining is a massively destructive business, and has been called the most environmentally damaging project on earth. Tens of thousands of acres of Alberta’s northern forest are leveled in the extraction process, which puts three to five times as much carbon pollution into the atmosphere as conventional oil drilling. Dr. James Hansen, one of our most respected climate scientists, says that if oil from the tar sands is added to the effects of burning coal, it is “essentially game over” for the earth’s climate system.

The material that is mined from the tar sands is nothing like liquid crude oil: it is highly acidic, corrosive, and 40 to 70 times thicker. To transport it through a pipeline requires dilution with toxic chemicals such as n-hexane and benzene that damage the human nervous system and can cause cancer.

In 2010, a tar sands pipeline in southwestern Michigan ruptured, dumping more than a million gallons of tar sands residues into the Kalamazoo River and forcing the relocation of 150 families. The cleanup, still unfinished, is the most expensive inland oil cleanup in history, costing nearly $800 million so far. The old pipeline to Portland has already experienced leaks, just transporting crude oil, including one in 1977 that contaminated the Black River and Lake Memphremagog.

On Town Meeting Day, 23 towns will have a warned item on this issue, and others will bring it up under new business. This is an important opportunity to challenge plans to pump this toxic material through our region. The resolutions voice the town’s opposition to transporting tar sands through Vermont, and call for a thorough environmental review of any tar sands pipeline proposal. In most cases, they also ask our towns to help investigate where our own fuel supplies come from, with a goal of phasing out purchases from refineries that use tar sands-derived oil. Larger cities and towns like Burlington will do most of the lifting here, with support from allies across New England. There is an effort in the Legislature to get the state of Vermont to do the same.

The Alberta Tar Sands are far away, but the impacts of mining there are global in scope. By approving this resolution, town voters will help support efforts throughout Vermont and New England to assure that our region will be tar-sands free.

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  • This is serious stuff. It amazes me that Vermonters, with all the other things we have to contend with, can’t rely on this being a “no-brainer” with unanimous support from our elected officials. But so be it. Fight is on.

  • Excellent piece Mr. Tokar.

  • As of 8 pm on Town Meeting Day, the following 22 towns had passed resolutions against tar sands oil. Several towns, including Montpelier, Burlington and St. Johnsbury, had yet to report:

    East Montpelier

  • 6 more towns:

    Montpelier (1650 – 643)
    Grand Isle (passed by Select Board earlier)

    1 or 2 still not reported.

  • Greensboro confirmed this morning. A total of 29 towns passed resolutions vs. tar sands oil! Also 3 towns in Maine.

  • In Marshfield, a lot of people hung in there for a 2.25 hr discussion. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to learn as much as we might have about the science of tar sands or the company’s hopes of running it thru Vermont, because we had to spend a lot of time on procedural issues – whether or not we could talk about it all, essentially. Though early speakers who were able to get heard, had made a strong case for why it is a local issue, as well as a planetary one – Admire the stick-to-it-ness of those who stayed thru all the procedural bickering, until we were able to vote (strongly) in favor of the slightly amended proposal which will request our town officials try to do business with fuel companies which avoid tar sands oil. Note: not a bit of reporting by the Times Argus on Marshfield’s intense debate and vote on this important issue!