Proposal To Reverse Flow Of Oil Pipeline Stirs Controversy In New England

fromVPR

As environmentalists protest a western pipeline, northern New England towns also worry that a pipeline that crosses the region will soon carry tar sands oil from western Canada. Their concerns were heightened recently when the CEO of a local pipeline company told Vermont lawmakers he's looking for new business — including shipping the controversial heavy crude. Two dozen Vermont towns will consider the issue at their annual meetings this month.

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Oil pipelines have become a focal point in North America for protesters who want to fight climate change. Environmentalists have opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, that would carry tar sands oil from western Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. And in New England, another pipeline proposal is sparking controversy. Oil companies there are looking at reversing the flow of an existing line. Here's John Dillon of Vermont Public Radio.

JOHN DILLON, BYLINE: The line is now used to ship oil west to refineries in Montreal, but the likelihood that operators will reverse the flow to carry tar sands oil from western Canada became more real recently. Larry Wilson, the chief executive of the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, told Vermont lawmakers he wants new customers for the line that cuts 236 miles across northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

LARRY WILSON: And that includes the possibility of reversing our pipeline, and it includes the possibility of moving oil from the western Canadian oil sands.

DILLON: The Vermont legislature is considering new environmental permit requirements if the pipeline is changed, but Wilson said pipelines are much safer than ships, trucks or rail to transport oil.

WILSON: The western Canadian crude does not present to us any substantial concern as far as increasing risk or hazards.

DILLON: But that's not how opponents see it.

RON HOLLAND: We have a couple of dogs. This is our daily walk route.

DILLON: Ron Holland crunches through the snow as he walks his land in Irasburg in northern Vermont. He pauses at the bank of a small trout stream, now locked with ice.

HOLLAND: So this is where it crosses the Black River, and we're probably standing on, if we could hear it, 130,000 barrels going that way at this moment.

DILLON: Holland and other environmentalists say the tar sands oil is more corrosive than regular crude and thus poses a bigger threat for aging pipelines like this one in New England. Except for snowmobilers, who ride the right of way, the pipeline has lain almost unnoticed under the ground for six decades. But activists are now using it to focus attention on climate change. They say extracting tar sands oil releases more greenhouse gases than drilling for conventional crude, and activists like Holland want New England to block the shipment so the tar sands stay in the ground.

HOLLAND: That's the larger concern for me, is the globe. Certainly, local environmental damage is significant, but the globe's health is probably more significant.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Our future, no tar sands, our water.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I can't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Our future, no tar sands.

DILLON: In Portland, Maine, more than 1,000 protesters turned out in January to oppose the potential tar sands project. The protests in the streets were followed by petitions in town meetings. In Vermont, at least 23 towns will consider nonbinding anti-pipeline resolutions at their annual town meetings on Tuesday. But oil industry analyst Patrick DeHaan of GasBuddy.com says the public and the protesters should consider their wallets as well. DeHaan says the western Canadian crude is cheaper than the oil now made into gasoline at Northeast refineries. He says the new supply would help lower the region's high gas prices.

PATRICK DEHAAN: It certainly would be an advantage for motorists in the Northeast for this pipeline to be reversed and to be connected to Montreal.

DILLON: The government of Canada is also trying to quell the concern over the pipeline. In recent weeks, officials from the Canadian consul's office have visited town boards in Maine and legislative committees in Vermont. For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vermont.

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