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Voters to address oil pipeline issue at Town Meeting
By Anne Dillon and Brian Tokar
This Town Meeting Day, March 5, voters in the Mad River Valley towns of Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren will have an opportunity to vote on a resolution to challenge proposed changes to an aging Northeast Kingdom oil pipeline that could have a serious impact on Vermont and our entire region.
The Portland-Montreal Pipeline was built between the 1940s and 1960s and currently pumps up to 400,000 barrels of oil a day from the port of Portland, Maine, to customers in Montreal and beyond, passing through 10 Northeast Kingdom towns. But Canadian companies are considering a very different use for a now-unused pipeline that travels the same route. It is connected to a vast oil pipeline network across Canada and companies like Enbridge – a partial owner of Green Mountain Power – have applied to reverse the flow of their pipes so they can transport highly corrosive and toxic material from the Alberta Tar Sands across Canada and northern New England.
Oil company officials currently deny that they have plans to reverse the pipeline through Vermont, but the evidence suggests that such a plan is in the works, including efforts to build a new pumping station in Dunham, Quebec, just across the border. With people across the U.S. and Canada challenging proposed projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and the proposed Northern Gateway through British Columbia, this “Plan C” option could become the path of least resistance for getting tar sands to the coast for export.
Why is there so much opposition to getting oil from the tar sands? Tar sands mining is a massively destructive business and has been called the most environmentally damaging project on Earth. Tens of thousands of acres of Alberta’s northern forest are leveled in the extraction process, which puts three to five times as much carbon pollution into the atmosphere as conventional oil extraction. Dr. James Hansen, one of our most respected climate scientists, says that if oil from the tar sands is added to the effects of burning coal, it is “essentially game over” for the Earth’s climate system.
The material that is mined from the tar sands is a gravelly, corrosive mix known as “bitumen.” It is nothing like liquid crude oil: it is highly acidic, corrosive, and 40 to 70 times thicker. To transport it through a pipeline requires dilution with toxic chemicals such as n-hexane and benzene that damage the human nervous system and can cause cancer.
In 2010, a tar sands pipeline in southwestern Michigan ruptured, dumping more than a million gallons of tar sands residues into the Kalamazoo River and forcing the relocation of 150 families. The cleanup, still under way, is the most expensive inland oil cleanup in history, costing nearly $800 million so far. The old pipeline to Portland has already experienced leaks, just transporting crude oil, including one in 1977 that contaminated the Black River and Lake Memphremagog. In 2009, the Portland-Montreal Pipeline was issued a Notice of Amendment by the U.S. Department of Transportation, requiring substantial “corrective action” to plans and procedures for emergency response training and corrosion controls.
What can we do? On Town Meeting Day, at least 24 Vermont towns, including our four, will have a chance to challenge plans to pump this material through our region. The warned resolution voices the town’s opposition to any effort to transport tar sands through Vermont and calls for a thorough environmental review of any tar sands-related pipeline proposal. It also asks our town(s) to help investigate where our own fuel supplies come from, with a goal of phasing out purchases from refineries that use tar sands-derived oil. Larger cities and towns like Burlington will do most of the heavy lifting here, with support from allies across New England. There is an effort in the Legislature to get the state of Vermont to do the same.
The Alberta Tar Sands are far away, but the impacts of mining there are global in scope. By approving this resolution, town voters will help support efforts throughout Vermont and New England to ensure that our region will be tar-sands free.
Dillon lives in Waitsfield. Tokar lives in Plainfield.