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Petitioner seeks to have 'tar sands' resolution re-voted
BETHEL — After two hours of presentations and debate by oil pipeline officials and their opponents last Thursday about the possible flow of diluted bitumen (“tar sands”) crude oil through the Bethel area, resident Bud Kulik reached a conclusion.
“I’ve heard absolutely nothing tonight that says that Bethel made an informed, intelligent decision at the last town meeting,” he said. “It needs to be looked at again.”
With that, Kulik set out to gather petition signatures to again bring to a town vote a resolution that opposes the possible flow of diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada through the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line.
In January the resolution was overwhelmingly approved at a special town meeting. But that vote was taken after only the views of diluted bitumen (dilbit) opponents had been presented. The meeting cut short debate and prevented oil industry officials who were present from speaking.
Last week’s public forum was called to give them a chance to present their case, albeit after the fact.
Only about 15 to 20 Bethel area residents turned out, and their numbers were nearly matched by the oil industry representatives. But there were some pointed exchanges over the risks involved, the jobs at stake on both sides, and the intent of voters at the January meeting.
The January resolution claimed there are higher risks of oil spills from dilbit pipelines, and it expressed concern about local economic impacts should dilbit oil spill from a section of the PMPL pipeline that crosses the Androscoggin River. The document also asked for strict environmental impact reviews of pipelines proposed to carry dibit, and generally supported a shift toward cleaner fuels.
When the pipeline officials got their chance to have the floor last week, Larry Wilson, CEO/president of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, quickly offered his take on the January meeting.
“When we came before, there was a very large crowd of people who had been brought into the meeting. We were not allowed to speak … We believe you passed a resolution that was based on a lot of pressure that was put on you. There’s mistruth and exaggeration and rhetoric in that resolution.”
He went on to explain why PMPL might consider the transport of dilbit oil in its line, which runs through Waterford, Albany, Bethel and Gilead.
Of two pipelines owned by the company, he said, only a 24-inch diameter one is currently in use. An 18-inch one is not.
“One of these pipelines is empty,” he said. “That’s because the business has gone away.”
He said the Shell Oil Company shut down a refinery in Montreal in 2010 and only one line is now needed to carry oil from Portland to Montreal.
“There are no guarantees that we’ll be able to continue to do what we do today exactly the way we do it,” he said. “We have to be open-minded to other opportunities that are safe for our system and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
In response to an observation on the large turnout of oil industry representatives, Wilson said, “We think it’s important that our neighbors understand that these people [dilbit opponents], whose heart I know they feel is in the right place, are going after our jobs.”
Several oil officials presented information on safety measures and monitoring systems that are in place to prevent and detect problems. They also cited PMPL’s safety record and awards the company has received.
Ken Brown, PMPL engineering manager, responded to claims that the heavy dilbit crude must be transported under higher pressure and temperatures than conventional crude, and is more likely to damage pipes because of its composition.
Brown said heavier oils that PMPL transports flow at slower rates, but at the same pressure as other oils. The oil is not heated for transport, he said, and averages 60 degrees – 40 in winter and 80 in summer.
[According to the TransCanada pipeline company website, dilbit is transported at similar pressures to other heavy crudes and is not heated. The average temperature is given as 98 degrees Farenheit.]
Brown also cited a recently-released draft environmental impact study from the U.S. State Department on the proposed Keystone pipeline, which if approved would carry dilbit from Alberta to Texas. The study said characteristics of dilbit and conventional oils are “generally comparable.”
Opponents of dilbit oil were granted equal time to make their case.
Responding to the pipeline presentation on safety, conservation biologist Ken Hotopp of Newry wondered if the pipeline officials “actually read the resolution that was passed in Bethel.” He said it doesn’t talk about higher pressure, temperature or corrosion in the pipes. “So a lot of your time was wasted,” he said. “[The resolution] talks about the bigger picture … There’s lots of good reasons for us locally to oppose tar sands, that don’t have to do with your safety record.”
He said, for instance, there have been impacts on wildlife and water quality in Alberta. He also said there are implications for climate change. Dilbit is a “dirty fuel,” Hotopp said, because it takes more energy to get it out of the ground than does conventional crude.
He acknowledged stopping dilbit from flowing through Maine would not have a significant global impact.
“No individual pipeline that carries tars sands would have a huge impact on climate change, but collectively there’s a lot of carbon in the ground up there [in Alberta],” he said. “If we burn that oil and throw carbon dioxide into the air, on top of what we’re already burning, we’re sure to create catastrophic climate change.”
Another opponent of dilbit, Seabury Lyon of Bethel, responded to Wilson’s view on the January town meeting.
“We didn’t bring in all kinds of people,” said Lyon. “We put a notice in the newspaper to say this is the issue, and there are some good people working on it. We’re trying to find out as best we can the facts on this issue and present it to you.”
He said no one was happy the officials were cut out of the discussion at the meeting. “But we feel what was said should not be lost on you all,” he said.
In a question-and-answer period, others offered their opinions.
Bob Chadbourne of Bethel supported the pipeline. He said it crosses his land in three towns, for a total distance of about four miles. He acknowledged there could possibly be environmental impacts, “but from watching them through my lifetime, I’m not concerned by what they’ll address it in a very responsible manner, if they exist.”
He also said the company has a lot of money invested in its infrastructure, and “they’re not going to be pumping something through there that‘s going to damage it.”
Patrick Binns, Canada’s Consul General to New England, defended his country’s work to get dilbit to market.
“We see the oil sands of Alberta as part of the North American energy resource, and an important part of our collective future,” he said.
In 2011, said Binns, Canadian crude and refined products made up 24 percent of U.S. petroleum products, most of it from Alberta. That is expected to increase as world wide supplies of oil decline, he said.
As for the environmental impact of extracting dilbit, Binns said from 1990 to 2010 “greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 26 percent and that continues to improve,” and is comparable to some crudes produced in the U.S.
Wilson added that whether a pipeline runs from Montreal to Portland or from Alberta to Texas, transportation by pipe is more environmentally friendly than by train, which he said produces overall higher carbon dioxide emissions.
The pipeline officials were questioned about their ability to respond to a spill and the effectiveness of a cleanup.
Heavy oil, said Wilson, “can be cleaned up, and cleaned up effectively.”
Lyon was skeptical. He asked how quickly cleanup crews could be on the scene of a spill.
Jim Fox of Boom Technology, Inc., an oil spill cleanup company, told him three or four hours.
Lyon said that in six hours oil spilled in the Androscoggin River in Bethel would have floated downstream to Lewiston.
And, he said, “a 24-inch pipe can dump a lot of oil in a short period of time.”
He also said there is information that oil and pipeline companies will not provide to the public, such as chemicals used to dilute the heavy crude to make it flow through the pipe. “We’re never going to know what the exact constituency is because it’s a trade secret. Why can’t we know what we have to be equipped to deal with? Excuse us for being alarmist or overly concerned, but it’s because of a lack of information, and we have to look to you for that.”
Wilson said his company does not currently have expertise on dilbit, but if PMPL transports the crude in the future employees will be well-prepared to handle it.
Wilson asked Bethel “to reconsider this resolution, and consider giving us open access to free open markets and be able to do what we’ve done successfully for 71 years.”
Bethel selectboard Chair Stan Howe, who moderated the meeting, said “If anyone wishes to try and change the town’s official position, it is possible through a petition procedure. You would need 136 signatures by April 29.”
On Monday, Kulik took out petition materials from the Bethel Town Office. He said he wants residents to vote in June – either at the annual town meeting or by referendum - on whether to rescind the resolution.
Kulik said he has not yet made up his mind how he feels personally on the issue.