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More in Editorials
Dueling 'truths' in tar sands debate
They say that in war, truth is the first casualty.
The same could apply to the debate over tar sands oil that has been raging in communities across western Maine for the past year.
Local activists, supported by environmental groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have agitated against an alleged plan to reverse the flow and pump tar sands oil from Alberta through the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, and pressed their towns to pass resolutions against it.
The Portland Pipeline Company and its alleged partner in the project, the Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge, have flatly denied any "active" plan to ship tar sands oil through the Portland-Montreal pipeline (although more recently PPLC execs have admitted they'd consider a plan if it was put in front of them.)
In the ensuing debate, raged in town meetings and public forums in the communities the pipeline passes through, the two sides have battled each other armed with opposing, contradictory "facts"; each with their own version of "the truth."
From the anti-tar sands position, usually led at these meetings by the NRCM's bearded, bespectacled clean energy director, Dylan Voorhees, bringing Albertan crude through the pipeline poses the risk of environmental cataclysm.
Tar sands oil is toxic, corrosive and nearly impossible to clean up when spilled in water, opponents say. It's many times more likely to spill than conventional oil and there are no established clean-up regimens. Overall, it poses "unacceptable" risks to an aging pipeline system like the PMPL.
Moreover, they argue, tar sands oil is dirty. Its production generates far more greenhouse gases than other crude oils and extraction of the resource has laid waste to previously untouched stretches of Canada's boreal forests.
Finally, don't listen to what the pipeline companies and oil industry folks tell you, Voorhees usually says – they aren't giving you the truth.
The other side, represented by the Portland Pipeline Company, the Canadian government and, sometimes, the American Petroleum Institute, comes armed with their own version of the truth.
Led by Larry Wilson, the ruddy-faced Texan head of the Portland Pipeline Company, the industry representatives allege opponents are spreading misinformation and misleading voters.
If people want the "truth" Wilson usually says, they need to listen to the pipeline company's side of the story.
Tar sands oil (which they prefer to call oil sands crude) isn't dissimilar from other heavy crude oils, pipeline engineers say. It certainly isn't any more corrosive or dangerous to pipelines than other heavy crude oils – the statistics the environmentalists use are cherry-picked for maximum effect and aren't realistic.
Even if there was a spill, the pipeline company is ready and able to clean it up, they claim. There are systems in place and top-notch contractors ready to spring into action if there is an accident.
A representative from the Canadian government is always given time to chime in and report that tar sands production is much cleaner than it has previously been and the industry is returning the boreal forests to their previous state.
Finally, consumers need petroleum, company executives insist. Why not try to source it from our neighbors? At a recent meeting in Otisfield, Wilson expressed his surprise that consumers would rather get their oil from "third world countries" than Canada.
We have sat through and read reporting about these exchanges in our communities over the past year and can recount the arguments, counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments almost by heart.
But the problem is, there is no middle ground to these exchanges, no one issue both sides can agree on and no neutral, well-informed moderator to keep them in line.
Instead, we are left with dueling "truths," struggling to find purchase with an audience in order to sway a town vote on a resolution.
In a situation like this, either one side or the other (or both) aren't telling us the whole story.
The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board