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Movement Underway to Make Portland 'Tar Sands Free'
01/23/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

City officials in Portland joined environmental groups and other activists at a news conference today to press for a new policy that would make Portland "tar sands-free." More than 2,700 residents have signed a petition asking for the policy, which would direct the city manager not to purchase any oil-based fuels from refineries that process the heavier and dirtier tar sands. As Susan Sharon reports, supporters view the proposal as another step toward reducing the city's carbon footprint.

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Movement Underway to Make Portland 'Tar Sands Free Listen
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Tar sands opponents protest in Portland today in support of a movement to make the city "tar sands free."

Modeled on policies adopted by 18 corporations, including Walgreens, Trader Joes, Patagonia and Whole Foods, the measure is not expected to account for major changes in the way Portland currently does business. Officials say only a small amount of tar sands oil is in the energy mix in Maine, and the Northeast overall.

But Emily Figdor of Environment Maine says that is likely to change very soon. "There are pipeline infastructure changes that are being made in the Gulf Coast that essentially are going to connect up pipelines that very quickly will result in a lot of tar sands oil being refined in the Gulf Coast that could very well make its way into Maine," Figdor says.

Oil companies have recently signaled their interest in getting heavy crude out of Alberta, Canada, and into world markets. And the Portland policy is in direct response to a proposed plan by Enbridge Pipelines Inc. to reverse the flow of one of its Canadian pipelines.

Environmentalists say this would open the door for the transportation of tar sands oil eastward to Montreal, and eventually into Maine. They worry that could pose potential hazards, since tar sands oil is so thick it requires heavy pressure and the addition of chemicals, such as benzene, to get it to flow.

Portland City Councilor Dave Marshall says there are also other reasons to reject tar sands oil. "There's a lot more carbon involved with the extraction, the processing and the moving of tar sands in comparison to conventional crude oil," he says.

And, says Marshall, the world's second-largest deposit of tar sands oil is locked in a forested area the size of the state of Florida. "If we unlock this than we will certainly put the future of the planet in jeopardy."

Activists are also closely watching the Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company, with headquarters in South Portland. It operates a pipeline that stretches from Maine to Canada and crosses the watershed of Sebago Lake, the water supply for more than 200,000 residents in southern Maine.

Four years ago, the pipeline company received permits to allow it to reverse its oil flow, conceivably allowing the transport of crude from Montreal to Portland. But the project never went forward and many of the permits have lapsed. Company President and CEO Larry Wilson says that plan is not being revived. But Wilson says the company must always consider ways to maximize its assets.

"Down the road there could be an industry and a North American energy demand for reversing our pipeline. We're happy to consider that," he says. "So, it's out there as a possible project, but it's not one that's on our project slate today - certainly not one that's been approved by our board of directors to implement."

In addition, Wilson says that even if the company did seek a reversal of flow, it would not necessarily be for the purpose of transporting heavier, Canadian crude. "Crude markets, like eastern seaboard refineries, might even prefer a light crude project."

Either way, Wilson says his company has an excellent environmental record and could safely transport oil across its pipeline system into Maine. He says the company employs 40 people and contributes more than $3 million in taxes and other fees to the state of Maine.

But he acknowledges that, lately, he is in the position of having to defend the business and its record as the debate over tar sands oil heats up.

"No tar sands! No tar sands! No tar sands!" chants a small group of prostesters, who showed up Wednesday afternoon at the company's main entrance in South Portland wearing gas masks, carrying signs with anti-tar sands messages and asking for a meeting with Wilson, who was unavailable.

Another, much larger, rally planned for Saturday is expected to draw environmental activists from around New England.

Photos by Susan Sharon.



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