My Turn: White Mountain rivers and tar sands: not a good mix
New Hampshire is at risk from a new hazard for which no local controls exists. Recently the Canadian government approved the reversal of the last remaining pipeline linking Montreal to the Alberta tar sands fields. The only existing pipeline for tar sands oil to reach international markets from Montreal goes directly across New Hampshire.
During World War II, a series of pipelines were constructed to bring crude oil from the port of Portland, Maine, to Montreal to avoid exposing tankers to German submarines. These pipelines transverse northern New England beginning in Portland, passing Lake Sebago and the Androscoggin River, continuing across New Hampshire in the Route 2 corridor, and over the White Mountains and the Connecticut River before entering Vermont to complete the journey to Montreal. Three pipelines remain. One is decommissioned, one is mothballed and one remains in active service.
Tar sands crude, or more properly bitumen, shares many negative environmental characteristics with coal. It requires significant amounts of energy to extract. Refining processes have substantial negative environmental impacts and yield large quantities of waste products. When bitumen is finally consumed as a fuel, it releases copious amounts of carbon.
A big difference between coal and bitumen is that, after dilution with volatile hydrocarbons, bitumen can be pumped through pipelines. Pipelines, like all transport modalities, are subject to failure. In the United States, we spill on average about 3 million gallons annually from pipelines. Unlike lighter liquid hydrocarbons, when bitumen escapes pipeline containment, and after the toxic volatiles evaporate, it will sink to the bottom of water bodies making it impossible to fully recover.
After four years and $1 billion, the tar sands pipeline spill cleanup effort in the Kalamazoo River remains a work in progress.
New Hampshire has some 70 water bodies, much ecologically sensitive land, and tourist destinations adjacent to the Portland-to-Montreal pipeline. We have a special interest in ensuring that any future reversal of the pipeline to transport Alberta bitumen is done in the safest manner possible. However, interstate oil pipeline, or more formally hazardous liquid pipeline, safety is the sole province of the federal government.
There are several bills in the New Hampshire Legislature that will create study committees, seek to improve emergency response and have the state assume responsibility for the federal pipeline inspection process. However, New Hampshire under federal law does not have the ability to take direct action to halt the flow reversal or to improve upon the existing federal safety standards.
What can you do? The State Department must rule whether a presidential permit and a full environmental assessment will be required before permission for a Portland-to-Montreal pipeline reversal is given. Gov. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter have all written requesting the State Department do just that. We should, too.
Let your elected representatives, Secretary of State John Kerry and the president know of your concerns and don’t wait. Without federal intervention, this potential risk is only a valve turn away from reality.
(State Rep. Bill Baber of Dover is a member of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee.)