Canadian officials counter Town Meeting Day resolutions against tar sands oil

The Alberta Tar Sands. Creative Commons photo by howlmontreal via flickr
The Alberta Tar Sands. Creative Commons photo by howlmontreal via flickr

By the end of Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, 29 towns across Vermont had adopted nonbinding resolutions to keep oil from the Canadian tar sands region out of the Green Mountain State.

The proposition struck a chord with the Canadian government, but it’s not one that’s in tune with the resolutions.

One week before Vermont’s fabled day of direct democracy, the Canadian consul general to New England, Pat Binns, sent a letter to 23 Vermont towns. The letter (posted below) was intended to “address some misconceptions” surrounding tar sands oil for those towns that had placed the resolution on their Town Meeting Day agenda.

“The often-cited allegations that diluted bitumen from oil sands is more corrosive in pipelines and has ‘high-risk properties’ are false,” Binns wrote. “The fact is that oil sands crude has been safely transported across North America for over 30 years.”

Binns told towns — like Hinesburg, Waitsfield and Middlebury — that due to new technology, “greenhouse gas emissions per barrel fell by almost 26 percent between 1990 and 2010,” and he pointed out that “U.S. coal emissions are nearly 40 times greater than those of the oil sands.”

He also mentioned Vermont’s heavy reliance on Canadian energy. Roughly one-third of the electricity Vermont consumes is derived from Hydro-Quebec, and the Canadian-based Gaz Métro owns Green Mountain Power, which provides electricity to more than 70 percent of Vermont. The Canadian company also controls the only natural gas company in the state, Vermont Gas Systems.

“I would … like to highlight the depth of our energy interdependence,” Binns wrote to the towns. “Canada sells Vermont petroleum, electricity, coal and natural gas valued at over $800 million annually.”

Andy Simon, who spearheaded the resolution for the climate change group 350 Vermont, refuted Binns’ claim that tar sands oil has a record of safe transportation in North America, pointing to the more-than 800,000-gallon spill in a Kalamazoo River tributary. The cost of that tar sands oil spill surpassed $800 million. More than two years after the incident, federal officials were still ordering further cleanup of the Michigan site.

Simon said he’s not surprised that the Canadian government is paying such close attention to this and other tar sands-related developments in Vermont, considering the large amount of money at stake.

“The underlying fact for Alberta, Canada and the oil companies is that they stand to make tremendous profits off of this oil,” Simon said. “One of the reasons they are paying so much attention to little Vermont is because it poses a threat of getting their oil to deep water for export.”

Aaron Annable, Canadian consul to New England, told VTDigger on Wednesday, “The letter pretty much sums up our concerns with what is going on in Vermont.

“Part of our mandate is to promote and defend Canada’s interests in New England, and that’s our interest in this issue,” he said.

The background

In November, Enbridge Oil applied to the Canadian National Energy Board to reverse the flow of oil along a stretch of its pipeline between Ontario and Montreal.

The company, which the U.S. government holds responsible for the Michigan spill, wants to pump oil from Alberta tar sands to Montreal refineries.

The Portland-Montreal pipeline connects Montreal refineries to Portland, Maine, for export, and the line cuts through 10 towns in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

The Portland Pipeline Corp. owns that line, and last month, the company’s CEO, Larry Wilson, told Vermont lawmakers that while his company presently has no contracts to pump tar sands oil, he is “aggressively” seeking out such opportunities.

He also told lawmakers that he opposes any added regulations on the line, including Vermont House and Senate bills that would require Act 250 review for any changes to a pipeline, aside from those that are “solely for the purpose of repair.” Act 250 is the state’s governing land-use law, which regulates large-scale commercial developments.

A coalition of environmental groups, however, says that a decision to pipe tar sands oil through Vermont would already trigger state review under current law. The group has asked the Act 250 Commission in the northeast region of Vermont for a jurisdictional opinion to verify whether the state’s governing land-use law has authority over such a change.

Last week, one day after Binns dated his letter, officials from Alberta met with legislators in Montpelier to talk about the region’s energy interests.

As this development has unfolded, the climate change group 350 Vermont led a statewide effort encouraging towns on Town Meeting Day to adopt resolutions to oppose the presence of tar sands oil in the state.

The resolutions and the industry response

Of the 23 towns that placed a tar sands resolution on their Town Meeting Day agendas, 22 passed some version of the item.

The town of Fairfield decided neither to pass it nor to vote it down, Simon said. The Grand Isle Selectboard passed a resolution before Town Meeting and did not place the item on their agenda. And six towns — Bennington, Starksboro, East Montpelier, Worcester, Randolph and Montgomery — moved a resolution from the floor and passed it, bringing the total number of towns that passed a resolution to 29.

Not one of the 10 towns that the Portland-Montreal Pipeline runs through entertained the resolution, however.

The resolutions ranged in shape and size, from 350 Vermont’s template (See below the story) to the concise resolution of “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free,” which was adopted by the mountain town of Ripton — home to Bill McKibben, climate change activist and one of the nation’s leading opponents to the development of tar sands oil.

All of the resolutions, Simon said, indicate that the majority of residents in these towns are opposed to the development of tar sands oil and its presence in Vermont.

“There’s a thicket of questions around the jurisdiction of the pipeline,” Simon said. “This manages to cut through that and say that all of these different authorities — the state and federal governments — derive their power from the will of the people, and this is a means of expressing the will of the people.”

Joe Choquette, a Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, said that taking a firm stance against the pipeline could create a more volatile situation.

“The oil is going to get to market somehow,” he said. “You might as well use the safest method possible, which is to use pipelines, rather than trucks or trains.”

Matt Cota, who directs the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, sat through a debate on the resolution in his hometown of Plainfield, where it passed.

“It’s clear that the tar sands resolution is heavy on political theater and light on common sense,” he said.

Cota took particular issue with a line in 350 Vermont’s resolution, which called on towns to only purchase fuel from vendors that could show where their fuel came from, and for the town to buy fuel from vendors that don’t sell oil from the tar sands region.

“That’s absurd,” Cota said. “It’s like asking the owner of the corner store to verify what cow the milk in his cooler came from.”




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Andrew Stein

About Andrew

Andrew Stein is the energy and health care reporter for VTDigger. He is a 2012 fellow at the First Amendment Institute and previously worked as a reporter and assistant online editor at the Addison County Independent, where he helped the publication win top state and New England awards for its website. Andrew is a former China Fulbright Research Fellow and a graduate of Kenyon College. As a Fulbright fellow, he researched the junction of Chinese economic, agricultural and environmental policymaking through an analysis of China’s modern tea industry. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has been awarded research grants from Middlebury College and the Freeman Foundation to investigate Chinese environmental policies. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, his work has also appeared in publications such as the Math Association of America’s quarterly journal Math Horizons and When Andrew isn’t writing stories, he can likely be found playing Boggle with his wife, fly fishing or brewing beer.

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  • Cynthia Browning

    Last year I introduced a bill that would have required legislative approval of the merger of GMP and CVPS, in part because one of the major owners of Gaz Metro is Enbridge, which builds pipelines and ships tar sands oil, and another is the Province of Quebec. In discussing why I saw this as necessary, I pointed out the possibility that Enbridge might want to ship tar sands oil through Vermont. I also pointed out the possibility that the Canadian government would attempt to use their control of energy we purchase to influence our policy decisions. I did not want a near monopoly of electric power in Vermont controlled by a large foreign corporation with such controlling interests.

    Most unfortunately, less than a year after the actual merger, we already have the possibility of shipping tar sands oil through Vermont, and we already have the reality of the Canadian government endeavoring to influence decisions at our Town Meetings, and also at the Legislature.

    I do not know what the best way to regulate the Portland – Montreal pipeline or the shipment of tar sands oil is. But I know for sure that I want Vermonters to decide what is best, based on what is best for Vermont, not based on what is best for Enbridge or for Canada.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  • I don’t know if this could happen, but say hypothetically, wouldn’t it be ironic if somehow the United States federal government got involved with the pipeline issue and allowed the Canadian tar sand oil to be transported through Vermont, via the pipeline, for national security reasons or because of the tacit influence of some past political contributions. A decision of this nature would definitely be against the will of some in Vermont.

    This would, however, be the equivalent of the Vermont legislature passing laws that allow the PSB to over ride town objections and allow the construction of wind turbines on mountain ridges in communities where they are not welcome or wanted.

    Now wouldn’t that be ironic?

    The State Department has just indicated that moving Canadian oil through XL pipeline is safe, so who knows what’s next.

  • drones the size of hummingbirds with tazer capacity in some cases by 2020, CISPA, so the gov knows what you buy from whom, and further impoverishment of the people, nature and the spirit if you don’t fight this coporatism. There is a farm in S. Western VT providing all their own fuel needs from seed stock, sourgum and camolina for their farm their generators atheir vehicles and tractors and their home. That is the future, hemp is a big answer to these needs. Let’s fight together.

  • Mel Allen

    I doubt the towns along the Kalamazoo River believe that bitumen oil sands can be transported safely. They’ve been cleaning for two years with no end in sight. Plus – the studies the Canadian Government released about a tar sands being non-corrosive showed them at temperatures of 40F not the 120F-158F temperatures that tar sands are actually recorded at when moving through pipelines. Spare us the glossy brochures and the re-write of your definition of what Tar Sands are. It is not crude oil and the permits for the pipeline in Vermont (and most of Keystone XL for that matter) specifically state ‘crude oil’.

  • Absolutely right. The assertion by Portland Pipeline Corp and the Canadian government that “there’s no difference between tar sands products and regular crude oil” is either a sleight of hand or, more accurately, an outright falsehood.

    When the Canadian Consul for New England asserts that tar sands products have been transported safely in the U.S. for 30 years, he is assuming that we don’t know anything about Kalamazoo. The Big Lie is alive and well.

  • Roger Hill

    Muscle flexing and misinforming by big oil whether Canadian or American goes on daily, but it does not win many friends in the state of Vermont, whom are far more educated with “eyes wide open” on this topic. The effects of ever increasing CO2 directly proportional to a warming erratic climate, will be the big bill board with neon flashing in the sky, not to mention the potentiality of a bitumin grease spill in Victory bog and the like.

    The Saudi like lusting ($$$) of some in Alberta is putting the Canadian environmental ethic in tatters. It’s disgusting and shameful how fast Canada has turned because the lure of profit.

    • How fast Canada “turned” from what, exactly? Their previous enlightened policies of exterminating their native populations for the glory of the Queen & the Church? It’s always been strange to me how people attribute all this benevolence to Canada just because they didn’t have the resources and population base to muster a great army.

  • Jim Barrett

    As usual, very few people who claim to be environmentalists (obstructionists) are against anything and everything that represents change. Shumlin decided to support a monopoly, Metro Gaz and exported all of the local profits to a foreign company and the legislature stood by and never complained. Now a few people are complaining about a foreign presence in Vermont of a company that wants to safely transport oil via pipeline and attempt to make money. Making money by any corp is not in the best interest of a socialist state and transporting oil by pipes has been around since the beginning of time and almost 100% safe. Someone suggested there was one accident and demanded we not do anything and I would point out that we have had a lot of air disasters as well but didn’t stop flying!!

  • We have documented temperature rise, clearly linked to the burning of fossil fuels. We know that pipeline leaks have devastating, lasting consequences. The fossil fuel industry has been caught funding climate change denial. And the leading climate change scientist warns it is “game over” for the climate if we tap into the tarsands. This is history being made, and I want to look back on this time and remember Vermont standing up for what we all know is right.