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Alarm raised about potential tar sands pipeline

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — With the fight continuing over a proposed tar sands pipeline through the Midwest, environmental groups are raising an alarm that a Canadian energy firm may be turning its attention to a possible eastern pipeline route through Northern New England.

But both the Canadian firm identified in a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Portland, Maine-based owner of the pipeline running from Portland to Montreal say no such plans are in the works.

Environmental groups including the National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Law Foundation, 350.org, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Natural Resources Council of Maine joined Tuesday in unveiling a report at news conferences in Montpelier and Portland decrying the possibility that tar sands oil from Western Canada might be shipped across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

"This pipeline plan puts Vermont's rivers, lakes and streams in jeopardy and provides no benefits," said Johanna Miller of Vermont Natural Resources Council. "Oil giants don't call the shots in here in Vermont and they can't be allowed to put our state's natural treasures in jeopardy."

Tar sands, or oil sands, are a mixture of water, clay, sand and thick, heavy oil called bitumen, according to the website of EnergyTomorrow, an industry group. The website is sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.

Because tar sands oil is so corrosive, acidic and thick, it is more likely to spill than conventional crude oil, said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. At risk are numerous rivers, streams and lakes — including Sebago Lake, which provides the drinking water for nearly 200,000 people in southern Maine — that the pipeline now crosses or passes by, he said.

"This raises the question: Why should Maine take on all the risks and the negative impacts simply to pave the way for big oil profits?" he said.

The NRDC report described the possibility that tar sands oil could be shipped Alberta to Montreal across a network of Canadian pipelines, and then southeast to Portland by reversing the current flow of twin, 236-mile pipelines that current carry oil arriving in Portland by ship from overseas through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec to Montreal.

The report cited a plan by the Canadian energy giant Enbridge, Inc., which a company spokesman said was dropped in 2009, to develop the Alberta-to-Portland pipeline route. The plan was dubbed the Trailbreaker Project. The report said the Enbridge plan appeared ripe for revival, especially given that the company had asked Canadian regulators last year for permission to reverse the flow from west-flowing to east-flowing, of a pipeline section in Ontario.

But Enbridge spokesman Graham White insisted the company no plan to revive Trailbreaker.

"We have been absolutely clear on the fact that the company is not pursuing the Trailbreaker Project," White said. "Trailbreaker terminated in 2009 due to a lack of commercial support. I'm not sure what more we can say or how clearly we can say this."

Curtis Fisher of National Wildlife Federation said he was skeptical. "They said they had no plan for a full reversal of Line 9 (the pipeline through Ontario), until they announced a full reversal in mid-May," he said.

Ted O'Meara, spokesman for the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, said, "There is no active project at this time, so we're not going to engage in a lot speculation about what might or might not happen."

Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, which handles energy issues for the state, said it was unclear what the state's regulatory role might be, especially regarding any plan to reverse the flow in an already existing pipeline.

Given that the pipeline crosses state lines, it more likely would be subject to federal regulation Miller said, and given that it crosses an international boundary, it might require a presidential permit, as the Keystone XL pipeline proposed to run from Alberta to the Texas coast did. The Obama administration has slowed development of that project, saying that as originally planned, it would pass near an aquifer in Nebraska that is a key source of drinking water.

Aside from threats to waterways near pipelines, the environmental groups said using tar sands oil would worsen climate change.

"Tar sands are a carbon bomb that will catapult us past several dangerous climate tipping points," said Sandra Levine of the Conservation Law Foundation. "It has no part in Vermont's clean energy future."

Miller said her boss, Gov. Peter Shumlin, shares that concern. "The governor does not support expanding the use of tar sands," she said.


Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield contributed reporting from Portland, Maine.

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