DALTON — Saying there needs to be a broader approach to spill preparedness, State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, is cautiously optimistic that a bill he sponsored may become law and give the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services some say over certain aspects of a pipeline that transports crude oil from Maine, across the North Country, to Canada.
The Portland–Montreal Pipe Line, according to the company’s website, owns and operates a tanker unloading facility in South Portland, Maine and tank farms there and in Montreal where PMPL also operates a refinery.
Extending 236 miles, the PMPL pipeline, which opened in 1941, is buried underground and includes a 24-inch diameter pipe and an inactive, parallel 18-inch diameter pipe, enters the Granite State in Shelburne, and proceeds mostly along the Route 2 corridor through Gorham, Randolph, Jefferson, and Lancaster.
Earlier this year, Woodburn and other lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 325, which would require PMPL to pay a license fee that would go into the state’s oil-spill remediation fund while allowing the DES to create detailed spill response plans.
The bill, after having been amended to eliminate the financial requirement upon PMPL, was approved, 3-2 on Wednesday by the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee and will head to the full Senate. If approved there, it would move to the House for consideration.
Woodburn and bill supporters – among them the New Hampshire Audubon Society – have warned that in Canada, PMPL’s corporate parents are looking to reverse the flow of oil, from west to east, and want to introduce so-called “tar sands oil” into the pipeline.
Bill supporters believe those actions would increase the risk of a pipeline failure, especially given the PMPL pipeline’s advanced age. Should there be a break in the pipeline, bill supporters say it could be extremely detrimental to the environment because the pipeline crosses more than 70 streams and wetlands, including the Connecticut and Androscoggin rivers, and also because the state’s Oil Pollution Control Fund is at only 20 percent of its $5 million balance.
Additionally, should the PMPL pipeline carry tar-sands oil, the clean-up, as evidenced by a 2010 spill in Michigan, could be very expensive and intense.
Heavier than crude oil, oil derived from tar sands requires the introduction of other compounds, some of them carcinogenic, to make it flow. In a spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, while the transmission compounds dissipated into the air, the tar sands oil sank to the river bed, necessitating an extensive clean-up.
Jim Merrill, a spokesman for PMPL, was adamant that, “No, there is no plan proposed, pending or imminent, to reverse the flow of the Portland pipeline.”
The pipeline, he said, has been transporting well, faithfully and “for a long time.” PPML, Merrill said, “is an excellent pipeline with the highest degree of integrity” and which has “safely transported over 5.8 billion barrels of crude oil” over its lifetime.
He noted that PPML is also an important part of the North Country economy and one of the region’s largest taxpayers as well as “a critical part of our energy infrastructure.”
Woodburn said he hopes SB 325, in some version, will become law. As it stands, the amended bill still would let NHDES be better prepared for a potential spill, he said. He acknowledged that his bill is moving forward with the “backdrop of rumors that tar-sands oil may be flowing, which, as we have learned, when you flow a tar sand it’s a different material and substance.”