Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England

Released by: Natural Resources Defense Council

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. appears to be reviving a previous pipeline plan that would take tar sands oil to central Canada and New England. In 2011, Enbridge took a step toward implementing this plan by filing a permit application with Canada’s National Energy Board to reverse the flow of a portion of one of its pipelines. Less than a year later, they took another step forward in May 2012 announcing their plan to fully reverse its pipeline through Ontario and Quebec. The long-term plan would reverse the direction of oil flowing through two major pipelines—Line 9 and the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line—along an approximately 750-mile route, running through central Canada and down to the New England seacoast for export. Under the plan, the pipeline would carry Canadian tar sands oil, the dirtiest oil on the planet.

The pipeline project would transport tar sands oil through some of the most important natural and cultural places in Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Areas the pipeline puts at risk include the Saint Lawrence River, the most important river in eastern Canada and a seasonal home for blue whales; the Androscoggin River, a New England waterway popular with anglers and paddlers as well as bald eagles, black bears, and moose; and Sebago Lake, home to native landlocked Atlantic salmon and a major drinking water resource for Portland, Maine’s largest city. An oil spill in these areas could devastate wildlife, pollute water, and compromise the health of local residents.

Pipeline spills can and do occur, and there are indications that due to its corrosive qualities, tar sands oil spills are more prevalent than conventional oil spills. Tar sands are like hot liquid sandpaper, corroding pipelines faster and risking oil spills along the route. A tar sands spill near rivers, lakes, and other waterbodies causes much more harm than a conventional oil spill because tar sands oil can sink and seriously complicate cleanup efforts.

Tar sands oil causes damage even before it ends up in pipelines. The extraction and processing of tar sands oil requires a vast and destructive industrial operation. It razes and fragments large swaths of the Boreal forest, and burns enough energy to make tar sands oil production the fastest- growing contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. It also harms the public health of communities located near oil refineries, including First Nations.

Transporting tar sands on this new route would only bring risks to central Canada and New England. Reversing existing pipelines is not necessary and should not be put into operation. As a starting point, the following steps are required to protect public safety and the environment:

  • The Canadian National Energy Board should treat Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal permit application as part of a long-term plan to bring tar sands oil east to the New England seacoast.
  • The Canadian and U.S. federal governments should complete more thorough reviews of plans to transport tar sands oil through central Canada and New England, evaluating the need for new safety regulations for tar sands pipelines.
  • Given potential safety concerns, and that increasing reliance on dirty fuels like tar sands oil contradicts clean energy and climate policies, provincial, state, and local governments should actively engage to ensure these issues are thoroughly vetted in the regulatory process.
  • Governments at all levels in Canada and the United States should develop long-range clean energy plans before committing to large-scale infrastructure projects that would increase oil consumption, and evaluate policies that would reduce oil demand.