It looks like Canadian oil expediter Enbridge may want to rethink its strategy for moving tar sands oil to east coast refineries.
Despite widespread objections from groups both north and south of the border, the company had planned on reversing the flow on existing pipeline in order to move tar sands oil eastward to Montreal.
Despite early denials, it was generally believed that, in a later phase, the company would most certainly attempt the same reverse flow in order to direct oil southeast from Montreal, passing through Vermont and New Hampshire on its way to Portland, Maine and U.S. coastal refineries.
Anticipating that possibility, Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation said in a statement last March:
“A spill would have a devastating impact on our water supplies, wildlife habitat and tourism industry. And any transport of tar sands through Vermont would encourage growth of an industry that contradicts all of our state’s leadership and hard work on moving toward cleaner sources of energy.”
Reversing pipeline flow may prove to be a much tougher sell now. PHMSA, the Federal regulatory body that overseas pipeline transport has just released a bulletin cautioning pipeline operators about the risk of environmental spills associated with the practice of reversing flow in an existing pipeline.
This does not come as news to pipeline opponents who have insisted that the redirected pipelines would be vulnerable to leaks, both for mechanical reasons and because the composition of tar sands oil makes it far more corrosive than the oil that these pipelines have customarily carried. The PHMSA findings confirm that they have been right all along.
PHMSA said the advisory was triggered in part by last year’s oil spills involving two reversed pipelines, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus tar sands line in Arkansas and the Tesoro Logistics line in North Dakota. Those accidents, as well as “other information PHMSA has become aware of” led the agency to issue the alert, the bulletin said.
Although the advisory was not accompanied by new regulations, it did lay out a list of “tests, precautions and adjustments” that the pipeline operators would be expected to observe if they undertake to use existing pipeline in this manner.
Anyone familiar with the current practices of federal regulatory bodies knows that they almost universally maintain an exceedingly light touch on the industries they are charged with overseeing. It is therefore all the more alarming that the PHMSA would be so emphatic in its expression of concern.
In another time, before politics made any hint of regulatory zeal taboo, the practice of reversing pipeline flow might have been banned outright.
If it is not sufficient cause to deny pipeline passage across Vermont’s vulnerable landscapes simply because of our state’s commitment to clean energy, this latest finding should raise enough immediate concern about the practice to allow even our least heroic political leaders to get on board with a ban.