Pipeline CEO says no current plan to move tar sands oil on line

RANDOLPH – The head of Portland Pipe Line Corporation said his company has no current plans to reverse the flow in its 236-mile pipeline to transport so-called tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada on the Portland to Montreal pipeline.
Speaking as part of a panel discussion on the issue at the Randolph town hall last week, Portland Pipe Line President and CEO Larry Wilson did not completely rule out the possibility. He said his company is pursuing various alternatives to maximize use of its pipelines.
“We would like to have a project,” he said. “We are looking at every possible opportunity to use our assets,” he added.
Wilson said if his company did decide to reverse the flow on its line and transport oil from Montreal to Portland, he believes it would be looking at moving a lighter crude than the heavy crude made from what the industry calls oil sands.
Wilson promised his company will meet with the host communities before undertaking a new project.
“We will come talk to you,” he said.
The pipeline travels through the local communities of Shelburne, Gorham, Randolph, Jefferson, and Lancaster.
The Randolph Conservation Commission set up the panel discussion that drew a full house to hear top speakers on both sides of the issue.
In addition to Wilson, speakers included John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, Richard Berry, of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services Spill Response and Complaint Investigation Section, and Shelley Kath, a senior consultant to the National Resources Defense Council.
Kath said tar sands oil is a gooey, sticky substance mined from deep in the earth that contains bitumen, a heavy black oil. She said the tar sands oil is extracted through either open pit mining or by deep drilling techniques that inject steam to melt and break up the bitumen so it can be pumped up. The bitumen is then diluted using a mixture of chemicals and natural gas to create a heavy crude oil that can be pumped through pipelines. Kath said extracting the tar sands oils is very destructive to the Boreal forest that overlay the tar sands.
In 2008, Kath said Enbridge Corporation, a large Canadian pipeline transport company, proposed a project called Trailbreaker to move diluted bitumen from Alberta to Montreal and eventually to Portland through the Montreal-Portland Pipeline. She noted the dilute bitumen was destined for export because there are no oil refineries in New England. The project was shelved for economic reasons. Kath charged Enbridge is now seeking to revise the Trailbreaker project but is proposing to do it in sections.
Kath warned that diluted bitumen has to be pumped at a higher pressure and is more corrosive than conventional crude oil.
She said spills can be very harmful, pointing to a 2010 spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan that leaked over 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, contaminating a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River. Clean up is still on going there.
Noting northern New Hampshire’s dependency on tourism, Kath argued there is little economic benefit to the region for the risks involved in reversing the flow in the pipeline to transport diluted bitumen. She urged residents to ask questions and be pro-active.
“The ball’s in your court as citizens to ensure the safety of the place you live,” she said.
Wilson and Quinn sought to refute many of the points made by Kath and both were critical of the National Resources Defense Council.
Wilson said the original pipeline was built in 1941 and   has delivered more than 4 billon barrels of crude oil to Canada from tankers in Portland Harbor. Currently there are two coated steel pipes in operation, an 18-inch pipeline installed in 1950 and 24 inches pipeline installed in 1965. Since the Shell Canada closed its Montreal refinery in 2010, the 18-inch line has not been in use.
Wilson said pipelines are a heavily regulated industry and described the steps his company takes to ensure the safety of its pipeline. He said he has not worked with heavy oils like diluted bitumen but noted there is a maximum operating pressure set for the pipeline.
Wilson said the Portland Pipe Line, which is a subsidiary of the Montreal Pipe Line, has not had a lost time injury for 14 years and has won various industry awards for excellence.
Quinn said if the federal government approves the Keystone Pipeline System from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, he is not sure there will be a need for transporting the diluted bitumen from Montreal to Portland proposal.
Arguing the NRDC is seeking to mislead the public, Quinn said once bitumen is processed it is no different than other heavy crude oils. He provided handouts stating there is no evidence diluted bitumen is more corrosive or erosive to pipelines than other crude oils.
He said the Kalamazoo spill was not the result of the diluted bitumen flowing in the line.
“The oil sands did not cause that spill,” he said.
Quinn urged the crowd to go to the National Academy of Science website and read information there on pipeline transportation of diluted bitumen.
Berry spoke about the state’s role in issuing permits and overseeing oil discharges and spills. He noted that the federal government is the regulatory agency for pipelines.
Under questioning, Wilson said authorities determined an external flaw in the pipe caused the Kalamazoo spill. But Kath said prior to the spill, inspections had identified 329 corrosive abnormalities in the pipe. She also pointed out that the line continued to operate 17 hours after the spill despite warnings from the leak detection system.
Bob Ball of the Jefferson Conservation Commission said he was most concerned about places where the pipeline crosses rivers. He noted that in 2008, the pipeline spilled about 84 gallons of oil into the Israel’s River in Lancaster. He asked if the diluted bitumen would pose an additional risk and if there is equipment to handle a spill.
Wilson said his employees undergo extensive training for emergencies. He noted they shut the pipeline down before Hurricane Irene and Sandy. The Israel’s River spill was blamed on a damaged exterior coating.
Wilson said state and federal regulations require pipelines to clean up any spill.
“It’s not an option to leave the environment impacted,” he said.
One speaker charged Wilson and Quinn were attempting to demonize the NRDC. He said the NRDC is one of approximately 25 different organizations concerned about transporting tar sand oils by pipeline. The speaker also challenged Wilson’s promise that he would meet with communities before going forward with any project to change use of the line. He pointed out there was no meetings in 2008 when Trailbreaker was under consideration.
Walter Graff questioned what benefits the local communities would see if the pipeline did move tar sands through the line.
After three hours, moderator Ben Eisenberg brought the discussion to a close.
“I think today we got a good deal of information,” he concluded.