Editorial: Will tar sands oil flow through New Hampshire?
Largely missed in the furor over the proposed Northern Pass hydroelectric transmission line, and the tilting for and against windmills on New Hampshire’s ridge lines, is another potential energy project that could have enormous environmental repercussions. It’s the possibility that heavy tar sands oil from Canada could flow not through America’s Midwest but through the Portland-Montreal “Trailbreaker” pipeline that cuts across Coos County.
The possibility has environmental and citizen groups up in arms in Maine and Vermont, both of which have laws that give it some say over what is primarily a project regulated at the federal level. New Hampshire, however, could be left swinging what amounts to a Nerf sword in its attempt to protect the Connecticut River and scores of New Hampshire rivers, streams, ponds and watersheds at risk. Lawmakers who are already debating whether changes should be made to the state Site Evaluation Committee, which approves or rejects large-scale energy projects, should consider whether regulators have the tools they need to protect the North Country if the pipeline reversal plan goes forward.
The CEO of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., owned by Exxon Mobil, has acknowledged that while the company has no immediate plans, it’s open to the possibility of reversing the flow in its 236-mile line to move the tar sands oil to Portland and into tanker ships. The line, which actually has three pipes of different ages, has carried oil inland since the 1940s. Two of the pipelines are currently idled. Because the newest and largest line has been in service for nearly half a century, critics of the proposal fear that, even with updating, it won’t be able to withstand the higher pressures needed to carry what’s called “dilbit,” a mix of tarry oil and thinning chemicals that evaporate when a spill occurs.
When a spill does occur, tar sands oil is much harder to clean up than ordinary crude. A massive 2010 spill created by a rupture in a pipeline near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River is still under way, and remediation could cost $1 billion. A rupture in a pipeline carrying dilbit two weeks ago in an Exxon-owned line in Arkansas has increased concerns over the future of the New England line, which for the most part has a good environmental track record. In both cases, sensors to warn pump operators of a leak in the line are believed to have failed, and a recent report by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration argues against placing too much faith in such safety systems. Between 2002 and July 2012, the agency said, remote sensors detected only 5 percent of all spills.
In New Hampshire, the pipeline runs from Lancaster through Jefferson, Randolph, Gorham and Shelburne en route to Portland. The land is beautiful, remote, rich in wildlife and important to the state’s tourist economy. It must not be subjected to undue risk. To that end, Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter are among the members of Congress who have asked Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that no tar sands oil is pumped through New England until after a full environmental impact study is performed. We join them in that request, but would add that, given its enormous potential to worsen global warming, the best place for Canada’s tar sands is right where they are, in the ground.