Although energy companies deny that they plan to ship tar sands oil through New England, the possibility of the west-east route has triggered growing protest around the region.
Activists have staged demonstrations the possible pipeline, including one that grew violent last month in Burlington. Environmentalists say a recent regulatory decision in Canada is strong evidence that energy firms eventually plan to ship the fuel from Alberta to Maine.
Late last month, hundreds of protesters staged what they called a human oil spill in front of a Burlington hotel where New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers were meeting the next day. A few of the protesters then tried to halt a bus that was carrying dignitaries to a dinner. They were dispersed by city police who used pepper spray and sting balls in a controversial show of force.
But how real is the potential for a tar sands pipeline through northern New England? Ted O’Meara, spokesman for the company that owns the line that carries fuel from Portland to Montreal, says there are no plans on the table.
"There’s no project to do that now, to reverse the flow in the Portland-Montreal pipeline," he says.
The Portland line cuts through the Northeast Kingdom, northern New Hampshire and Maine. Environmentalists said the same line could carry tar sands oil from west to east, for export out of Portland.
They point to a recent decision by the National Energy Board in Canada as evidence. The decision allows the Enbridge energy company to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline and send regular oil from Sarnia, Ontario to Montreal. Environmentalists say companies are putting the project together in piecemeal fashion, and the Ontario route is a key link toward New England.
Jim Murphy is senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation. The energy board decision allows Enbridge to ship oil, not tar sands. But Murphy says it’s only a matter of time.
"We think that given the market for tar sands that tar sands will come eventually," he says. "And given the fact that Enbridge has a large stake in tar sands, they’re going to want to move tar sands eventually through New England."
Enbridge could not be reached for comment. The company has said in the past that it does not plan to ship tar sands through the pipeline.
Ted O’Meara of the Portland pipeline company says a link-up from Montreal east is not planned, for now.
"Not saying they couldn’t be one in the future, but there is no active plan," he says. "And again, we’re not indulging in speculation about what other pipeline operators in Canada are doing."
Those opposed to tar sands projects say the substance is worse from a pollution perspective than regular oil. As the name implies, the fuel is sandy, gritty and corrosive. Environmentalists fear it can wear through pipelines and cause spills. A major spill in 2010 in polluted the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
Governor Peter Shumlin is opposed to tar sands oil. But despite the protests, the recent meeting of New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers did not address the issue. At a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting, Shumlin said that there was no consensus on the controversial fuel.
"We didn’t bring up the issue of tar sands, because I think there’s a diversity of opinions among the premiers and the governors on exactly the best approach to that evolution of technology," he said.
Some leaders at the conference indicated tar sands could be a bridge fuel that would allow Canada and the U.S. to use domestic energy sources while the region moves toward more renewable energy projects.