The dirty oil’s a-comin’

The President of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline Corporation brought a clear message to the Statehouse today: He has every hope of transporting tar-sands oil from western Canada in an existing pipeline that runs through the Northeast Kingdom. Currently, the pipeline carries imported oil from Portland to Montreal.

“Some have said we may have a reversal project,” Larry Wilson told the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee this morning. “We don’t have one at this time. We hope to have a project to revitalize our company and use these assets to provide for energy needs.”

(Wilson’s company actually has two pipelines on the same route; one is currently mothballed due to lack of demand.)

Wilson spent most of his testimony offering reassurances (or bromides, if you prefer) about his company’s safety record, maintenance procedures, and environmental orientation. He claimed that oil pipelines are built to handle flows in either direction, and that “pipeline companies routinely change the direction of flow.”

Wilson is trying to beat back proposed legislation that would require a fresh Act 250 permit for any substantial change in use of an existing oil pipeline. Under current law, it’s unclear whether a fresh permit would be required.

Wilson also sought to minimize concerns about the nature of tar sands oil. He never said the phrase “tar sands oil”; instead, he referred to “heavy crude,” and said his pipelines were fully capable of carrying any kind of oil, heavy or light. He denied that carrying tar sands oil would require heating of the pipeline or an increase in pressure.

But mostly, over and over again, he referred to his company’s “outstanding,” award-winning, diligent, constant, continuous dedication to safety and maintenance.  

Funny thing. Thanks to US Judge Garvan Murtha’s ruling in the Vermont Yankee case, lawmakers must tread carefully when talking about “safety.” As with nuclear power plants, the safety of oil pipelines is solely a matter for federal regulators. More than one member of the committee expressed concern that, if they talked too much about safety, they might be providing evidence for a Yankee-style lawsuit. Would it sound too conspiratorial to infer that Wilson was hoping to drive the conversation onto safety, in hopes of building a trail of evidence for future legal action?

Wilson slammed the bill, saying “it seems discriminating to me.” I think he meant “discriminatory,” but we’ll go on. He argued that the pipeline industry is already heavily regulated, and added “If you tell me I have to secure permits I don’t need today, it seems unnecessary and difficult for me to move [oil] to markets.”

Environmental groups (scheduled to testify on Wednesday) plan to focus on global warming rather than concerns about oil spills. The extraction of tar sands oil is a very carbon-intensive process, and has been called “the dirtiest form of fossil fuel.” Western Canadian oil producers are looking for pipelines to major ports — through the central US and through western Canada to the Pacific — and the Portland-Montreal pipeline would provide a ready outlet to overseas markets.

(If, of course, states like Vermont don’t erect new regulatory barriers.)

The enviros’ larger goal is to make tar sands oil a financially unattractive proposition, in hopes of limiting production operations and the resulting carbon emissions.

If Wilson was hoping to kill or delay the legislation, he may have done his cause more harm than good. His frank admission that he hoped to reverse the pipeline certainly adds some urgency to Deen’s bill. And given the partisan makeup of the Legislature, Wilson can’t hope to prevail by appealing solely to the free-market crowd. Most lawmakers, IMO, will probably remain unconvinced by the practiced blandishments of a professional oilman.  

5 thoughts on “The dirty oil’s a-comin’

  1. Spills should fall under the heading of “environmental impacts;” something entirely different from public safety, and for which even Vermont Yankee can be held accountable by the state.

    Yes, there definitely should be a new Act 250 review required for this significantly different use of the pipeline.

  2. One thing that consistently missing from discussions about Tarsands East is exactly where and how the 70-year-old pipeline runs through VT, NH & ME.

    Here is a link to a detailed map of the System Overview map of the Portland-Montreal PipeLine System, which was part of a presentation given in Portland by a Chris Gilles, on behalf of the Crude Oil Quality Group in June 2009.(see p.2)

    Individual towns are clearly indicated, elevations of pumping stations, surface waterways, etc. This map should be downloaded and circulated widely, I think, before it is removed from its cache site.

    (COQA stands for Crude Oil Quality Association. Check the home site,, for an amusing industry take on integrity & responsibility.)

  3. As a point of clarification, it’s true that VY can be “held accountable” by the State for “environmental impacts” which are NOT related to “[radiological] safety and “nuclear” aspects of energy generation,” but anything falling within the rubric of radiological safety and the “nuclear” aspects is federally preempted. It so happens that virtually everything of environmental concern at VY sooner or later falls within the federally preempted area.

    There are additional avenues the State can pursue under the federal Clean Water Act, which is why ANR gets to issue an NPDES permit for the plant, but those are seldom an issue otherwise.

    In general then, it’s fair to say that even within a narrow reading of nuclear preemption law, safety at nuclear plants can be regulated only by federal authorities.  (States may and do participate in these decisions, however).

    Preemption law depends, among other things, on exactly what Congress is deemed to have intended to restrict to federal jurisdiction, and in the case of pipelines, I for one have no clue what the limits are in pipeline law.

  4. Yes, of course.  Beyond excessive heat released into the Connecticut River, it’s difficult to imagine environmental impacts from VY that would notinvolve the nuclear preemption.

    Can anyone enlighten us as to whether the oil industry is equally well-protected from responsibility for its most likely environmental impact…oil spills?  It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

  5. They are of course, at least “responsible” for spills; what I am asking is whether or not the state has any right to impose regulation on them related to environmental threats from oil spills.

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