B: NH Tar Sands Oil may be Transported Across Northeast Despite Poor Safety Record and Risky Cleanup

Hey there, alternative energy fans -- here's the news you've been waiting for. A Canadian pipeline company may be looking to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands across northern New England from Montreal to Portland, Maine.

The plan from Enbridge, Inc. would retrofit existing pipelines to provide an eastern conduit to overseas markets. Which shows you what a powerful economic force the Alberta tar sands have become: they're looking far and wide for ways to get the oil out of Canada.

This idea has been out there for a while, according to NH newspaper Foster's Daily Democrat:

One of Canada's largest pipeline operators, Enbridge, Inc., developed a plan in 2008 to reverse one of its existing lines to begin moving tar sands oil east from Western Canada, where the industry is set to boom.

Enbridge's Line 9, which starts in the western part of the country, would be capable of delivering tar sands oil to Montreal if the company reversed the flow of the entire line.

...To move the tar sands oil on the final leg of the journey from Montreal to Maine, the company proposed utilizing the existing Portland-Montreal Pipe Line.

The plan was shelved when the economy hit the skids, but environmental groups say there are signs that Enbridge is on the move once again. (They're holding a news conference this morning in Montpelier to showcase the issue.) Enbridge spokesperson Jennifer Varey says the project remains sidelined, but that might change in the future:

"It's one of those things where, if the market demand is there, there is the possibility that we would be bringing Canadian oil to those markets," in the Northeast, she said.

The National Wildlife Federation outlines some of the potential risks of tar sands oil in the PMPL.

The plan would have exposed American treasures to the risks of a tar sands oil spill. These include Sebago Lake, which supplies Portland, Maine with its drinking water; the Connecticut River, New England's largest; the Misissiquoi River, historically valuable to tribes and tributary of Lake Champlain; and other critical resources.

If you'd like a sample of the potential damage from a tar sands oil spill, just Google "Enbridge" and "Kalamazoo River." Back in 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in southwestern Michigan, sending 1.2 million gallons of oil into the river and one of its tributaries. Cleanup efforts were extensive, expensive, and only somewhat successful. For what it's worth, the Michigan Department of Community Health has concluded that there's no long-term health risk to area residents and no sign of contamination in nearby wells. (Of course, Michigan's government is headed by notoriously pro-business Governor Rick Snyder, so draw your own conclusions.)

Take particular note of a whistleblower in the Kalamazoo River cleanup: former contractor John Bolenbaugh, who claims he was fired after he complained the cleanup wasn't being done properly. He's planning to sue Enbridge for wrongful termination, and has posted information and videos online that support his case.  

Tar sands oil is particularly nasty stuff. When it's spilled into a body of water, it doesn't float -- it sinks. A report from Cornell University's Global Labor Institute asserts that the nature of tar sands oil greatly increases the risk of leaks and spills:

There is strong evidence that tar sands pipeline spills occur more frequently than spills from pipelines carrying conventional crude oil because of the diluted bitumen's toxic, corrosive, and heavy composition. Tar sands oil spills have the potential to be more damaging than conventional crude oil spills because they are more difficult and more costly to clean up, and because they have the potential to pose more serious health risks.

Its study of historical spill data concluded that, if the Keystone XL pipeline were built, it could generate up to 91 major spills over a 50-year period. And that would be a new pipeline, built for the purpose of transporting tar sands oil. What are the additional risks of retrofitting an older pipeline?

At this point, the Enbridge plan is still on the shelf. But there's a whole lotta dirty oil in western Canada, and economic realities dictate that it's going to find an outlet somewhere. Might just be in our own backyard.  

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