A Canadian court decision handed down in mid-February will delay plans for the potential delivery of controversial tar sands oil to South Portland. A judge with the Court of Quebec denied a request from Montreal Pipe Line Ltd., owned partially by Canadian giant Suncor Energy, to construct a pumping station in a designated agricultural zone in Dunham, QC, a town near the Quebec-Vermont border. The decision delays any prospect of reversing the flow of oil, which currently runs from South Portland to Montreal.
The 236-mile pipeline has pumped over four billion barrels of oil to Montreal refineries since 1941, largely contributing to Portland's status as the Eastern Seaboard's second largest oil port, according to the city of Portland.
Portland-Montreal Pipe Line is comprised of two companies: Portland Pipe Line Corp., based in South Portland, and its parent company, Montreal Pipe Line Ltd. PMPL owns and operates a tanker unloading facility and a tank farm in South Portland.
A spokesperson with PMPL says that the company currently has no plans to reverse the flow of oil between Montreal and South Portland, and that the court case over the disputed Dunham pumping station, needed to reverse the flow, was simply a means of laying legal groundwork should the company ever decide to pursue that option.
"The project is not active and it's not going anywhere right now," says Denis Boucher. "There may be a demand at one point to carry oil from Montreal to Portland instead of the other way, but not at present."
Canada has become less dependent on foreign oil in recent years, leading to a seven-million-ton drop in the amount of oil piped through the pipeline. The country's newfound petroleum independence is largely credited to western Canada's ample deposits of so-called tar sands, a resource predicted to increase Canadian crude oil production by 193% over 1990 figures by 2020, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
A hot-button environmental topic as of late, tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy, viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, but the extraction process creates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel as compared to conventional oil, according to the association.
PMPL first floated the reversal concept locally in 2008, immediately garnering the attention of environmental groups already piqued by a proposal from oil transport company Enbridge. That project, called Trailbreaker, would have switched the flow on a 524-mile Canadian pipeline, pumping tar sands oil from Calgary, Alberta, to Montreal, where Enbridge's Line 9 pipeline connects to the Portland-Montreal line.
The project was shelved in 2009, with Enbridge blaming market conditions, but many environmentalists say the same project continues on in a piecemeal fashion, referencing Enbridge's 2011 application to Canada's National Energy Board to reverse the flow on one stretch of pipeline between Calgary and Montreal.
"There is no real question that there is a conversation happening about how to get tar sands east across Canada to Montreal and beyond," says Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
In August 2011, David Cyr, treasurer of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., confirmed to the Montreal Gazette that the company is discussing plans to revive the reversal project due to improving economic conditions.
Tex Hauser, South Portland's director of planning and development, recalls PMPL gaining planning board approval to make infrastructure changes consistent with flow reversal, but says that market forces are keeping the oil flowing strictly north. "As other oil gets more expensive or difficult to obtain, I'm told it would be more economical to start shipping to our refineries," Hauser says.
Hauser said that oil exports to Canadian refineries has long topped the list of products passing through South Portland.
Environmentalists worry that the reversal of flow would see more tar sands being pumped through U.S territory, a dangerous prospect given the fluid's unique attributes, according to Voorhees.
Given its higher viscosity, tar sands must be run through pipelines at higher temperatures and velocities, according to Voorhees. "It's more corrosive, more acidic; if there is a spill, the cleanup consequences are much more difficult," he says. These characteristics are also believed to make tar sands more susceptible to spillage, according to Voorhees.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is currently studying whether tar sands are more corrosive than other crude oils, with results expected by July 2013.
"There should be some very real concerns about tar sands crude coming through Maine, concerns we should start learning about before there are 30 days before a decision," says Voorhees.
The Canadian court decision was the latest in a series of appeals brought before Canadian courts in the last three years. In 2009, Canada's Commission for Protection of Agricultural Land ruled that the pipeline did not violate a law preventing non-agricultural use of agricultural land, according to court documents.
The decision was appealed to Administrative Tribunal of Quebec in 2010 by Dunham resident Stephan Durand. The court ruled the pipeline did not effectively demonstrate the need to site a pumping station in the agricultural zone, though MPLL engineers selected the site in order to get the oil over Quebec's Sutton Mountains.