Tar Sands Pipeline Should Get Act 250 Review, Groups Say

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Environmental groups say any effort to ship tar sands oil through a northern Vermont pipeline should be subject to the state’s land use review.

The pipeline company has insisted it has no current plans to reverse the flow of an existing line to carry the heavy fuel across northern New England.

But the company does confirm it is studying future options for its pipeline.

Back in 2008, oil and pipeline companies announced plans to reverse the flow of the pipeline to carry tar sends from western Canada, across northern Vermont and New Hampshire to Portland, Maine.

The companies shelved that plan during the economic downturn, and they say it has not been revived. If it ever is, environmentalists say the project needs to undergo an Act 250 review.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, doesn’t believe the denials. He said one company, Enbridge, has a pending application in Canada to ship oil, including tar sands, from Ontario to Montreal.

"They’re bringing more crude which includes tar sands to Montreal, at least that’s their plan. The only logical place to take is down through Vermont and to Portland, Maine," he said.

Murphy said Exxon, which owns the company that operates the line in New England, has met with town officials along the route who have voiced concerns.

"They also hosted in December – or co-hosted a meeting at the University of New Hampshire – to talk about how to deal with tar sands spill risk with officials throughout the region," he said. "So we can’t point to a direct plan but they’re certainly not acting like people who do not have a plan to bring tar sands through the region."

Ted O’Meara is a spokesman for the Exxon subsidiary, the Portland Pipe Line Company. He said the company has no plans now to reverse the flow and ship tar sands oil. But he left open the possibility that could change.

"What the company has been very open about saying is that it continues as it always has to look at various options for using this resource which in the future could conceivably include a project for reversal. But there is not one now," he said.

Environmentalists say tar sands oil is worse than conventional crude because it releases more greenhouse gases. And they say the heavier and more corrosive tar sands oil poses a greater risk of a pipeline break.

Right now, the oil in the 63-year-old pipeline flows the other way – west from Portland to a Montreal refinery.

The environmental groups say that a reversal of the flow – and a switch to the heavier material – would be a change of use that requires a state Act 250 permit.

Douglas Ruley directs the environmental and natural resources law clinic at Vermont Law School. The clinic filed a legal request for the pipeline plan to go through the land use permit process. Ruley said all the signs point to a tar sands proposal.

"But if they never ship tar sands oil through this pipeline, that’s great," he said. "What we’re doing with this request is putting the mechanism in place that if they do want to ship it through there, then the state and the citizens have a voice in that through the Act 250 process."

Six Northeast Kingdom landowners have joined in the request for Act 250 jurisdiction.

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