Vermont environmentalists are sounding the alarm: Groups such as 350.org, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council are warning that new Canadian regulatory filings suggest a Canadian oil company may have plans to transport tar sands oil through Vermont to the Maine coast.
The Canadian company Enbridge Oil applied in November to the Canadian National Energy Board to reverse the flow of oil on a pipeline between Ontario and Quebec. The reversal would provide a route for exporting tar sands oil from the Canadian west. Environmentalists suspect that it's just a matter of time before Enbridge looks to the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, which cuts through a corner of the Northeast Kingdom on its way to Maine, to extend the route for tar sands oil.
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.
But that doesn't comfort David Stember, 350.org's tar sands campaign coordinator for the eastern region. "It's obviously to their advantage not to show their hand until they need to," Stember told Seven Days late last week. "That's strictly a process of trying to minimize the damage."
And Jim Murphy, of the National Wildlife Federation, speculates that as Enbridge runs into roadblocks in other parts of the country — President Obama last year rejected a proposal for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline extension, which would have carried oil to from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico — the northeast may seem like an attractive alternative for export. Stember agrees.
"They’re looking for a path of least resistance," says Stember. "This is not that path."
Why does this matter to Vermont environmentalists? Stember ticks off a few reasons. First, tar sands oil isn't your typical crude: It's thick, sticky and full of sand and grit. That requires oil companies to blast steam underground to extract the crude, generating more greenhouses gases in the mining process than a typical oil well. It also means that if there's a spill along a pipeline — like the costly and destructive 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River — the tar sands oil is extremely difficult to clean up. If Vermont were to experience a tar sands spill, Stember says, the region could be facing some very real health and safety risks.
But Stember also says that environmentalists "don’t have the luxury of separating out local health and safety issues from the borader issue of bringing in a high carbon fuel." He says tar sands oil is 20 percent more carbon intensive than conventional crude; opening up a major channel for exporting this oil in the Northeast, he believes, could have a devastating effect on climate change.
"We're doing all this work to reduce our carbon footprint as the state of Vermont," Stember says. "Yet if we were to roll over and allow this pipeline to go through this state, our region would be flooded with a higher carbon fuel, which would negate a lot of the work we’ve been doing."