For oil pipeline officials, tar sands debate ends before it starts
The president/CEO of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, the PMPL’s director of operations, two pipeline maintenance technicians, the executive director of the New England Petroleum Council in Boston, and a representative from the Canadian Consulate in Boston all came to the special town meeting in Bethel last Wednesday to present their side of the controversial “tar sands” oil debate.
They never got the chance.
A warrant article on tar sands (known technically as diluted bitumen or dilbit) had been placed on the special town meeting warrant at the request of a group of two dozen local residents.
The group is worried the PMPL might reverse the current flow of crude oil in its pipeline in order to instead carry dilbit-derived crude from Montreal to Portland. The pipeline runs through Bethel.
The local group is among other environmentally-minded people in Maine who are concerned the composition of the dilbit oil would make a spill more likely along the 60-year-old pipeline.
On Jan. 22 the Bethel group persuaded selectmen to add to the Jan. 30 town meeting warrant a resolution that opposes a reversal of flow. The warrant initially included only an article to establish a Bingham Forest Authority. (For text of resolution, see Jan. 24 Citizen.)
Call the question
Fifteen minutes into last week’s meeting discussion, three supporters of the resolution had spoken. Bob Iles then moved to call for the question, an action intended to stop debate and quickly bring about a vote on the main motion (the resolution itself). His motion was seconded.
There then had to be a vote, without debate, on calling the question, according to meeting procedure. A two-thirds affirmative vote by the 63 people present was needed to proceed to a vote on the resolution.
Moderator Bob Everett said Iles’ motion could be withdrawn (to allow others to speak). It was not, and the vote on calling the question was taken and declared passed.
Pipeline representatives raised their hands in an attempt to be heard, but it was too late.
Bethel resident Scott Hynek had a prepared statement to read, and he strongly objected after the vote on calling the question.
“Wait a minute – I haven’t had the opportunity to speak,” he said. “You’ve heard from one side and not the other.”
Everett then reread the warrant article, and residents overwhelming approved the resolution. The meeting then adjourned.
Hynek did read his statement after the adjournment, and most of those attending stayed to hear him.
He questioned the need to vote on the resolution now, rather than wait until residents can learn more about the oil industry’s side of the issue.
The visitors from Portland and Boston had not been publicly identified when the resolution was first put on the floor, and it was not clear how many meeting attendees were aware of them.
“We never would have [made the trip from Portland] if we knew what was waiting at the other end,” said Larry Wilson, PMPL president/CEO, after the meeting.
He said other communities that had held meetings about the dilbit issue had given them a chance to speak. “It’s a bit disappointing,” he said.
John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, was critical of the meeting process and said hehad spoken with Bethel Town Manager Jim Doar Wednesday afternoon about attending.
The oil industry representatives stayed after the meeting to talk with some residents and town officials individually.
Also attending the meeting was Dan Demeritt, who said he has done work for the energy industry in the past, but was at the meeting only as an observer. Demeritt formerly was communications director for Gov. Paul LePage.
The Bingham Forest Authority article was easily approved at the beginning of the meeting.
In a followup e-mail and phone interview later in the week Wilson described the leadup to the meeting: “A number of us asked about the process for how to participate in the meetings discussion when we arrived, to be sure of our understanding of how to communicate to the citizens and leaders of Bethel.”
Wilson said his group was told they would be allowed to speak after Bethel citizens completed their comments, and only if two-thirds of the residents voted to allow non-residents to speak (a standard requirement).
“I must say when Bethel’s own citizens were prevented from participating in the discussion I was taken aback by the meeting process,” Wilson said. “I would like to state emphatically that we were trying desperately to have the opportunity to speak and we’re surprised at the process preventing our ability to do so.”
He said they raised their hands immediately when Iles called the question.
Wilson said the group had driven through very foggy conditions to attend.
He said that after the meeting “I was encouraged as to the genuine integrity and quality of the community as several of Bethel’s citizens and leadership approached us after the meeting apologizing for how the meeting was conducted and how the process was manipulated to prevent our participation. They also were gracious to invite us to return for a fair opportunity to discuss this issue, which we absolutely will be pleased to do. We are thankful and have the utmost respect for those leaders who expressed disappointment with the affair and assured us of the opportunity to return and speak to our neighbors in Bethel.”
Everett said later he was surprised how quickly the motion to call the question was made. In hindsight, he said, he would have insisted on allowing alternate opinions.
He said he was aware there were people from out of town but did not specifically know they were oil industry representatives.
Contacted Monday, Iles was asked if he realized there were representatives present from the oil industry. He said he did not.
“I didn’t know until you just told me,” he said.
Iles said he called the question because there was a “void” in time after the first three speakers. “Nobody else was making any effort to say anything,” he said, so rather than prolong the meeting, he made the motion.
Had he known the officials were there, he would have wanted to hear from them, he said.
Doar was asked Monday whether Wilson would have been told to wait to speak until after residents had had their turn.
“No one here would have told him, or anyone else, when to speak,” said Doar.
What resolution supporters said
Brendon Bass began last week’s discussion with an account of a dilbit spill in 2010 from a pipeline in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. He said the spill caused environmental damage and gave residents headaches, coughs and other health problems.
“We have brought this resolution because we believe the oil industry will soon seek to pump diluted bitumen from Montreal to Portland, in order to ship it elsewhere,” he said. “It will not benefit us here in Bethel or in Maine. It will not lower the price of our oil. It will only expose us to risks to our personal health, the health of our land, water and wildlife and the health of all our businesses that depend on a clean natural environment.
“This resolution also speaks to a much larger concern. Humanity’s overdependence on fossil fuels is an addiction that is disrupting the planet’s weather and life support systems. While we work on overcoming that addiction by getting the energy we need from renewable sources, let’s at least not compound the problem by clearing forests that provide the oxygen we need, polluting land and water, and spewing yet more carbon dioxide into an already overwarmed atmosphere.
“To voice your desire to protect the human and economic health here in Bethel, and to speak up for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, please adopt this resolution.”
Seabury Lyon said that chemicals added to dilbit to dilute it enough to be pumped through pipelines include more toxic volatiles such as Benzine that increase health, environment and fire hazards that require special handling at all process points.
He said spills and leaks occur three times more frequently than regular heavy crude oil.
Lyon said there is no mitigation equipment or strategy proven to be effective in cleaning and restoring areas affected by large spills.
Another leading member of the local group, Ken Hotopp of Newry, said after the meeting that oil company representatives “never do explain why a town should allow increased risk to our rivers, our economy, and our climate, for no real benefit.”
What oil officials would have said
Oil and pipeline companies have denied there are currently any plans to change the direction of flow and contents of the PMPL pipeline. They also argue that dilbit oil does not pose a greater threat than other oil.
Aaron Annable, consul and head of the Foreign Policy and Diplomacy Service for the Canadian Consulate in Boston, said after the meeting he was attending in support of “the product.” He said he has seen much inaccurate information presented about dilbit.
He was asked what he would have said had he had the chance to speak.
“The Canadian government is committed to environmental responsibility in developing oil sands,” he said.
Such development, said Annable, “is subject to strict regulations and review. All affected land must be returned to its natural state by law.”
He also said that new technologies “have improved the environmental performance of oil sands development significantly, and are continuing to do so.”
On Friday PMPL President/CEO Larry Wilson was asked what he would have said.
He said his company provides jobs in Maine, pays $4 million in taxes and fees annually and contributes significant amounts to organizations such as the United Way.
Wilson said his company currently does not have a project planned to reverse the flow on the pipeline. But, he said, “We hope to have a new project for our system in the future. It could be a reversal project. We have considered it in the past, and we could in the future.” The market and potential customers, he said, would dictate any plans.
If PMPL decided on a reversal, said Wilson, “We would get out to the communities,” and explain the plan.
Wilson said that transporting oil from Canada would be a more secure and cheaper source of fuel for the U.S. than sources such as the Middle East.
Asked about speculation that Canadian oil might end up in Asia instead of America, Wilson acknowledged that his company would have no say in the ultimate destination of the oil once it reached Portland. But, he said, “the most logical destination is the closest possible market, which we believe would be Nova Scotia or the U.S. East Coast.” Refineries there prefer lighter crude oil rather than the heavier dilbit crude, he said.
But Wilson said his company would be comfortable transporting either one, because he has confidence in the system and its safety procedures. He elaborated on that system.
Wilson said the age of the pipeline system is not a concern, comparing it to an old house that functions well as long as it is well-maintained. “There’s no limit on the years of service,” he said.
There are two oil pipelines running to Montreal. One, built in 1965, is 24 inches in diameter and is currently carrying oil, Wilson said.
The other, built in 1950, is 18 inches in diameter and is not in use. It was shut down in 2011 after being “purged” with nitrogen to prevent corrosion, Wilson said.
“If we have to reverse some day, both are in excellent condition,” he said.
He described PMPL maintenance procedures.
An electrical current (known as cathodic protection) runs constantly along the pipes to prevent corrosion, he said.
The company flies the pipeline route by helicopter once a week to check it, he said, though regulations require once every two weeks.
An inline inspection device is sent down the lines at least every five years (as required by regulations) to check for problems from the inside of the pipe, he said.
Wilson said PMPL has won several industry environmental safety awards in the past two years. Pipelines, he said, are the safest way to transport oil.
Activists also say the oil would be transported under higher pressure than usual, increasing the risk of pipe failure. Wilson said the pipe is designed to operate at a certain pressure, and dilbit would be transported below that level.
As for the Kalamazoo spill, he said, “That failure did not have anything to do with the commodity. It was a metallurgical issue.”
Wilson was asked about activism against pipelines as part of a larger effort to move the world toward alternative energies.
He said reaching that goal someday would be “wonderful.” But, he said, it would take a long time to reach that level of energy production and still maintain the lifestyle to which people are accustomed “In the meantime, he said, “Can’t we work together to make it the safest possible?”
(For more background on the dilbit issue, see Bethel Citizen 7/12/12 article at www.bethelcitizen.com/news/news/2012/07/12/speaker-warns-local-tar-sands...)