With all the recent controversies and media attention surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines, you would not be remiss in thinking that these are the only projects currently being considered to get tar sands crude to foreign markets. But you would be wrong.
It seems the Canadian government is quite serious about plans to triple production of tar sands bitumen and would not be satisfied even if they were somehow able to bulldoze public opposition to Keystone and Gateway. Although the project has not been officially confirmed, plans are in the works to pump bitumen from northern Alberta through Montreal to the Atlantic coast city of Portland, Maine, where tankers would then transport about 200,000 barrels a day of the heavy crude to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and foreign markets.
This so-called Trailbreaker project would appear to present fewer regulatory obstacles, as it would not require construction of a new pipeline. Instead, the flow of the existing Portland-Montreal pipeline, which currently brings oil from Africa and the Middle East into eastern Canada, would simply be reversed.
According to the Portland Daily Sun, David Cyr, treasurer of the Portland Montreal Pipeline Company, is on the record recently as saying, "We do not have an active project…in terms of bringing western Canadian crude here." While it may well be true that there is no “active” project, Cyr’s comments hardly amount to a rigorous denial and they fly in the face of active rumours I have been hearing out of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Indeed, as recently as last summer Mr. Cyr was quoted in The Globe and Mail as saying, “We’re still very much interested in reversing the flow of one of our two pipelines to move western Canadian crude to the eastern seaboard. We’re having discussions with Enbridge on their Line 9 and what it means to us.” Moreover, other insider industry sources have previously confirmed that discussions are underway to expand the Enbridge proposal to carry tar sands bitumen to the Atlantic.
Enbridge, the company behind both Trailbreaker and Northern Gateway, has already requested fast-track approval from the National Energy Board of their $16.9 million plan to reverse the flow of tar sands crude from western Canada to Montreal. Yet according to Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, this is merely phase one of a plan that would then be followed by a reversal of the Portland Montreal Pipeline. The NRC believes that by splitting the project into pieces, Enbridge is attempting to bypass full regulatory and public scrutiny.
Enbridge had secured permission in 2010 from the Quebec Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land to build a pumping station near the town of Dunham, Quebec. Just last month, however, the environmental group Equiterre and a citizen from Dunham won a Quebec Court ruling by arguing successfully that the issues surrounding the pumping station were not fully aired at the commission. This ruling would appear to stall, for the time being, an attempt to ship oil from Montreal to Portland.
The NRC recently joined three other environmental groups in Portland to educate the public on the dangers of transporting tar sands bitumen. “The larger context is that there's a large effort of getting tar sands crude oil out of Canada,” said Voorhees. “It doesn't seem prudent on us to wait until there's an application to start learning about this because it's very clearly on the radar."