MONTPELIER -- A pipeline company executive told Vermont lawmakers Tuesday his company is willing to move tar sands oil from western Canada across northern New England, a possibility panned by environmental activists concerned about spills and the chance the state would lose its standing as a leader in limiting pollution.
Portland Pipe Line Corp CEO Larry Wilson said that while his company has no active plans to get into the tar sands shipping business, it would welcome the opportunity.
"We hope to have a project to do something with our pipeline in the near future, and that is an option that we would absolutely consider," Wilson told the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. Wilson’s statement came after months of denials by energy companies that any plans were afoot to ship tar sands oil across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
To do so would require reversing the flow of the pipeline which now carries oil delivered by ship in South Portland to a refinery in Montreal.
"Reversing our pipeline is something we’re prepared and capable of doing very effectively, very safely, and moving oil of any crude grade, whether it be light, medium or heavy, is something we’re very comfortable and confident we can do," he said.
Aside from visiting with state officials in Vermont, Wilson said he had been touring towns all along the three-state route of his company’s pipeline, trying to mollify any concerns of local residents and officials.
The arguments by environmentalists echo those associated with the Keystone XL pipeline proposal to move tar sands oil down the country’s midsection to refineries on the Texas coast.
The Vermont committee is considering putting any such changes on the pipeline under the state’s tough Act 250 land-use review law, under which developers have to bring projects to a district commission, with appeal rights both for project supporters and critics to a state board. Wilson spoke against the legislation, calling it an unnecessary layer of government regulation.
Environmentalists have been raising an alarm about the possibility of Canadian tar sands oil being shipped through New England with two key objections in mind: fear of spills and worries that burning tar sands oil will worsen climate change.
Jim Murphy, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, cited a 2010 rupture of an oil pipeline that went unnoticed for 17 hours near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
Tar sands oil is said to be more difficult and energy-intensive to produce and dirtier to burn, releasing more carbon than conventional oil. Environmentalists said Vermont, with no big coal-fired power plants and little heavy industry, is among the lowest carbon emitters among the states but would become, in the words of Johanna Miler of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, "a conduit for the world’s dirtiest oil."
Wilson said in an interview he would let others decide what to do about global issues like climate change.
"As long as we as a society require the energy that we require for our lifestyles today, I believe we ought to move that energy in the safest, most reliable, most efficient and effective manner possible, and that is pipelines," he said.
Brent Kinsley, 62, a vegetable farmer and maple syrup producer from Irasburg whose land is crossed by the pipeline, said he liked the idea of subjecting any big changes to the use of the pipeline to a full state environmental review. "It would be prudent to have as good or better oversight, in terms of holding these folks who want to repurpose this to a high standard."