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Reversing a pipeline: Wrong direction on climate policy

Posted Aug. 02, 2012, at 3:25 p.m.

A summer that has seen record-breaking heat and drought across America also brings protests of a nearby energy-related proposal with bad climate impacts. A pipeline starting at the oil terminal in South Portland runs all the way to Canada. The Portland-Montreal Pipe Line currently carries conventional crude 236 miles across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to refineries in Montreal. Two Canadian Companies, Montreal Pipe Line Ltd. and Enbridge Inc. could choose to reverse the flow direction of the pipeline to pump tar sands oil past us to the world market.

Local officials and environmental advocates express alarm over the pipeline plan. Issues arise because of environmental consequences associated with the extremely heavy, viscous oil called “bitumen” extracted from the tar sands near the boomtown of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Tar-sands oil is more corrosive than conventional oil. It is called “the world’s dirtiest oil” and described as hot, liquid sandpaper that grinds through a pipe. Opponents cite to the threat that pipeline failure and spills will harm waterways, drinking water, wildlife and other natural resources. In Maine, the pipeline crosses the Androscoggin, Crooked and Presumpscot rivers and passes 1,000 feet from Sebago Lake, the source of clean drinking water for many Southern Maine communities.

Concerns about the local environment and tourism along the pipeline route are justified. In July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and spilled 840,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Recreation suffered and cleanup costing more than $40 million is ongoing.

But such real and serious concern can be seen as secondary. As the world watches developing climate disruption, our environmental analysis needs to go beyond the local and immediate. We all now play a role in the science and politics of climate systems.

In May, the U.S. Library of Congress released a report confirming that tar sands oil puts out more climate-changing carbon pollution than all other fuels — even traditional, polluting oil, gasoline and natural gas.

Why raise this now? Well, June 2012 set a total of 3,215 high-temperature “for-this-day-in-recorded-history” records in America as the country saw remarkable drought, scorching heat, furious wildfires and breathtaking storms.

No single weather event is ever proven to be caused by man-made global warming, but the pattern is unmistakable. Human activity — burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas releases — is giving the planet a temperature that causes freakish weather.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the first six months of 2012 the United States set more than 40,000 hot-temperature records, but fewer than 6,000 cold-temperature records. Until this century, we experienced equal numbers of hot- and cold-temperature records. This year, ice-out on Maine lakes was close to a full month early. Unusually warm coastal water led to a historically early appearance of soft-shelled lobsters.

Scientists predicted this. For example, Physicist Gilbert Plass in a July 1959 Scientific American article “Carbon Dioxide and Climate” predicted temperature rises. Plass wrote a half century ago that “long-term temperature records will rise continuously as long as man consumes the earth’s reserves of fossil fuels.”

We have had sufficient warnings of climate disruption. Now it is time for policy responses. This includes a rapid transition from the most damaging energy sources to much greater energy efficiency.

As it is, we cannot safely burn all of the recoverable conventional oil no less the more carbon intensive and abundant coal. Tar sands is worse for the climate it requires more energy intensive processing and refining to produce gasoline and diesel fuel. Dr. Adam Brandt of Stanford assessed this and concludes that oil sands have approximately a 20 percent higher climate impact than conventional oil.

In other words, reversing the Enbridge pipeline to transport tar-sands oil would cause needless additional adverse climate effects. Currently, there is no permit process in Maine. It is time we update environmental law. As others have realized, climate impact needs to be factored into policy decisions.

On July 17, 2012, ten top U.S. climate scientists wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the better-known Keystone XL pipeline asking that the State Department conduct “a serious review of the effect of helping open Canada’s tar sands on the planet’s climate.” The scientists added: “The vast volumes of carbon in the tar sands ensure that they will play an important role in whether or not climate change gets out of hand.”

Such a review needs to be done for the similarly consequential decision to reverse the flow of the existing Portland-Montreal Pipe Line. Maine has a stake in that proposal and we should assert our collective interest in the outcome.

Representative Jon Hinck, a Democratic primary candidate for U.S. Senate, represents Portland in the Maine Legislature and is the ranking minority member of the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

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