Legislative committee mulls 2-year moratorium on ‘tar sands’ oil

Posted May 06, 2013, at 7:21 p.m.
Last modified May 07, 2013, at 9:32 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill creating a two-year moratorium on the transportation of “tar sands” oil in Maine pit environmental groups against those who say the ban would have far-reaching negative effects on the economy during testimony before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

The bill, LD 1363, calls for a legislative resolve setting the moratorium while directing the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential impacts of moving oil sands, known by environmentalists as “tar sands,” through Maine.

At stake is the possibility a South Portland-based pipeline company would seek to move tar sands crude through Maine in the 262-mile Portland-Montreal Pipe Line.

The pipeline carries crude oil from the sea port in Portland to the refinery in Montreal, but — even though there are no immediate plans to do so — could potentially move crude in the opposite direction from inland Canada to the port.

The pipeline stretches through western Maine in Oxford and Cumberland counties and crosses several rivers and streams that feed the Lake Sebago watershed.

Committee members heard conflicting testimony on a range of topics, including the physical description of the what “oil sands” crude, as industry officials call it, looks like and how it differs from typical crude oil.

“It’s oil with clumps of tar in it,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland independent.

But industry officials including Larry Wilson, the president of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Corp., said the oil is little different from the heavy crude the company already moves in its pipelines by the millions of barrels each year.

“You’ve heard tar sands oil, we call it heavy oil, from the oil sands, described as peanut butter, molasses — I read the other day someone describe it as, ‘it’s like pumping coal’ — no, it’s just heavy oil,” Wilson said. “It’s been cleaned up and processed to make it pumpable.”

Wilson added that his company takes great pride in its 72-year history in Maine and works hard to protect the environment. The company also works closely with the state and local fire departments in order to be prepared should a spill occur.

The idea that they care little for the state’s environment is just incorrect, Wilson said.

“We see ourselves as great corporate citizens adding to the value of Maine, not destroying it,” he said.

Chipman said his bill is intended to protect the health and safety of Maine people and the environment until the state can study the substance more and better understand the costs of any potential clean-up from a spill.

“Let’s not invite an extremely hazardous substance into our state without at least studying the potential effects,” Chipman said.

Environmental advocates, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Environment Maine, spoke in support of the bill, but individuals from the oil, construction, shipping and business communities in Maine said a moratorium sends the wrong message and could compound already troubling economic trends.

As Chipman’s bill calls for a moratorium on all petroleum products derived from oil sands, that could affect a range of products, including gasoline and home heating oil.

One witness, John Quinn, the executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, said that most of the gasoline and heating oil consumed in Maine comes from refineries in St. John, New Brunswick, and a good portion of all the oil refined there is oil sands or tar sands crude.

Quinn told the committee that if they drove a gasoline-powered vehicle to Augusta on Monday, there’s a “fairly good chance” the gas in their tank came at least in part from oil sands crude.

Others testifying in support of the bill said Mainers should take warning from the spilling of oil sands in other parts of the country, including into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan — dubbed the most costly inland oil spill cleanup in the U.S. to date at nearly $1 billion — and ask what the economic impact of a spill like that would be here.

“A spill like this in the Sebago Lake watershed, or near any of Maine’s waterways, would be utterly disastrous,” said Emily Figdor of Environment Maine.

In all, 12 people spoke in favor of Chipman’s bill while 10 spoke in opposition to it. The committee will likely take the bill up during a work session later in May.

 

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