Photo: National Transportation Board

Update 7/28 see below. An October 4 deadline looms for the decision on yet another application to tap the tar sands. At first glance, this application seems modest: it only involves a single segment of a pipeline, and it runs entirely inside Canada. No U.S. Presidential Permits seem to come into play, no buses to DC, no White House sit-in.

But on both sides of the border, people are connecting the dots. To the west, the segment meets up with a line that has already been pumping tar sands liquids eastward for years. This is the line that put bitumen spills on the wider map back in 2010, when Enbridge pumped over a million gallons of tar sands bitumen through a pipe rupture and into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Known as the Dilbit Disaster (dilbit is diluted bitumen), this spill demonstrated that while conventional oil spills can be catastrophic, responding to bitumen spills is much harder.

Before the spill, Enbridge was planning on reconstructing that line, to be able to pump higher volumes. Enbridge was planning on reversing the flow in the segment mentioned above, so that it would connect with the spill line and bring its tar sands streams further eastward. In fact, Enbridge planned to reverse the flow in the whole line of which that segment is a part, all the way to Montreal. And before the spill, Enbridge was working with the operators of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL) to reverse its flow, to create one long connected pipeline project, known as Trailbreaker. Tar sands liquids arriving in the Chicago area would be pumped eastward through Trailbreaker: via Michigan, Ontario, and Quebec. Part of the flow would then turn south in Montreal, through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, to Portland, and out onto the global market.

After the spill, the project appears to be proceeding fairly steadily, but Enbridge downplays the fact that they are currently expanding the spill line, preferring the term “restoring”; downplays plans to reverse the flow on the whole of the line from the spill line to Montreal, calling the segment reversal a “standalone” project; and denies any plans still exist for crossing the border at all, even though their project partners applied for a permit (recently denied) for a pumping station. A station like that would be needed to push heavy tar sands liquids through the line in reverse, pumping it south, from Montreal to Maine.

The line they have in mind using was constructed in 1950. The first pipe along that route was laid a decade earlier, during World War II. It allowed tankers to dock and unload in Portland rather than having to face the submarines in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in order to bring oil to the refineries in Montreal.

In the late eighties, a company leased the 1950 line and reversed its flow to bring Canadian natural gas to New England. A decade later, the line reverted back to pumping oil northwest, from Maine to Montreal. Each change required a Presidential Permit. From the Tar Sands Action on Keystone XL, we know that the State Department handles the review for “crude oil” pipelines (at least to the extent that they don’t outsource the assessment process to the pipeline operators themselves). But bitumen and diluted bitumen aren’t actually a kind of crude oil (the IRS actually relieves tar sands streams from some taxes for this very reason), they’re a different beast altogether, as the spill responders at the Kalamazoo River learned the hard way.

A State Department report notes the original plans for flow reversal on the PMPL were shelved already in 2009 because local groups objected to using the pipeline for tar sands liquids.

Well, we’re “objecting”, again. Suppose the movement against pumping tar sands liquids through Vermont and for a Tar Sands Free Vermont and New England proves too strong for Enbridge and PMPL operators.  Suppose we “win.” Suppose, for instance, a Presidential Permit for flow reversal on the PMPL depended on it only carrying actual crude oil?

Well, it would be a start. But Enbridge and the PMPL operators could profitably choose to reverse the flow “simply” to ship fracked light crude from Bakken, North Dakota. As bad as that is in and of itself, by freeing other capacity, this, too, would actually support expansion of the Alberta tar sands.

The State Department report notes: “The continuing and rapid growth…from the Bakken… is changing the situation [regarding the PMPL and tar sands streams]… Carriage of light conventional crude would presumably meet with less opposition than oil sand streams.” In other words, industry is setting itself up to make carrying Bakken light crude (or maybe tar sands syncrude, just not dilbit) look like the “rational middle ground,” should the Tar Sands Free movement prove powerful enough to delay or block flow reversal projects focused on the tar sands, even though any line that frees capacity in that region serves to expand the tar sands as well as hydrofracking for oil in the Bakken, i.e., is very far indeed from any “rational middle ground.”

Here’s the deal: the physical properties of pipelines, hazardous liquids, and spills are obviously important, but when we focus mainly on these, we risk missing the fossil forest for the trees. The fossil fuel industry already has enough proven fossil fuel reserves on the books to take us up to the internationally agreed upon global average temperature increase limit of 2°C – five times over. Governments profess to agree with this limit, saying, in effect: “We seek no larger carbon budget, no higher temperature, no wider war on climate.” And yet instead of focusing on deploying infrastructure that can actually solve the problem, here we are planning and constructing infrastructure that serves to expand our on-the-books fossil fuel reserves beyond five times as much as the amount we have agreed to limit ourselves to burning.

If you share a fundamental moral outrage over this absurdity, join us this summer and beyond as we use organizing, NVDA, divestment campaigns, and transformative pilot projects to stop new fossil fuel projects, shut down old ones, and build our future at the human scale, with human values, instead.

Update 7/28: The Canadian National Energy Board approved Enbridge’s application to reverse the flow on the western-most segment of Line 9, a couple of months before the decision deadline. Enbridge will need to submit an additional application in order to pump dilbit through the pipe. The NEB noted: “The Board accepts Enbridge’s statement that it would not transport any product that cannot be transported safely.” (The full U.S. NTSB report on the Kalamazoo River spill is expected out very soon.)

Additional Info:

In response to the 2010 Kalamazoo River pipeline rupture and spill, Enbridge is expanding that line and reversing the flow in a connecting line, which will support expansion of the Alberta tar sands and Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. But what happens at the other end of a fossil fuel’s life? There’s no atmospheric or oceanic “pipeline” for the waste streams, no alarm bells going off (if only to be ignored, like Enbridge ignored its own alarm bells in 2010), no option to expand “capacity.” Yet every time the fossil fuel industry expands its “assets”, the atmosphere and oceans, and we, are supposed to just take it. That’s how the market works. The “capacities” of the atmosphere and ocean are just about maxed out, but the fossil fuel industry already has assets “worth” more than five times the remaining capacity in terms of CO2, and that’s without even counting most of the tar sands, or the gas and oil fracking “boom”, and the industry is only looking to add more assets of course, to grow. When will we burst at our seams with the moral outrage this embodies? [Map adapted from NWF]

Enbridge EEP 2008 Q2 Earnings Call Transcript