PORTLAND, Maine — Environmental advocates rallied Tuesday morning against what they called an inevitable attempt to reverse the oil pipeline connecting Portland to Montreal to accommodate the transport of acidic, corrosive tar sands oil from Canada.

In a press conference led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Natural Resources Defense Council, representatives of the organizations said Canadian energy firm Enbridge Inc. has made clear its intention to reverse the flow of its pipeline from Sarnia, Ontario, to Montreal in order to move tar sands oil extracted from Alberta eastward.

The most direct route of export, said NRCM Clean Energy Director Dylan Voorhees on Tuesday, would be to pipe it through New England to the port of Portland, where it can be loaded onto tankers and shipped to specialized refineries elsewhere in the world.

“There’s no scenario we can comprehend where they’d transport hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil to Montreal just to stop there,” Voorhees said during the press conference, held at Portland City Hall.

The reversal of the pipeline to South Portland was discussed by Enbridge and pipeline operator Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co. in 2008 as part of what was called Project Trailbreaker before it officially was put on ice due to the struggling economy.

Shelley Kath of the NRDC said the revival of the project already has begun in the form of Enbridge’s efforts to reverse the flow to Montreal over Phases I and II of Trailbreaker. A Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co. official confirmed to the BDN this year negotiations with Enbridge have restarted, but an Enbridge spokesman said at the time the reversal of the Canadian-based pipelines starting in Sarnia is not necessarily a precursor to a reversal through Maine as well.

Kath said the refinery in Montreal has too little capacity and would need major upgrades to handle the tar sands oil — which is thick and sandy, compared to the light crude oil most refineries handle, and which currently is piped from tankers off Portland through the international pipeline to Montreal.

Dave Cyr, treasurer of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co., suggested to the BDN earlier this year a reversal of his company’s line also could be used to accommodate crude oil from western Canada similar to the less controversial oil already flowing through the pipes.

The concerns of the organizations present Tuesday were highlighted in a report titled “Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England.”

Becky Bartovics of the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club joined Kath and Voorhees in describing tar sands oil as dangerous to push through aging pipes, such as the Portland-Montreal line, which is 62 years old.

Voorhees said the tar sands oil must be diluted with toxic chemicals, like benzene, and piped at higher pressures and heat levels than light crude to allow it to flow. At room temperature, Kath said, the thicker tar sands oil is nearly solid.

That extra stress on the old pipeline, Kath said, triggers more cases of leaks and spills. She said pipes carrying tar sands oil across the Midwestern U.S. spilled three times as much oil per mile than the national average from 2007 to 2010. In 2010, an Enbridge pipe spilled 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The environmental advocates on hand Tuesday warned that even a much smaller spill from the Portland-Montreal pipeline — which crosses the Crooked River leading into Sebago Lake, from which 15 percent of Maine’s population gets its drinking water, in six locations — would be catastrophic in this state.

“It is incumbent upon users of this special watershed to speak for it,” said Casco-based Maine Guide Brooke Hidell during Tuesday’s press conference.

Voorhees challenged the notion that the use of the cross-Maine pipeline for tar sands oil would provide an economic benefit, saying the addition of new tankers coming into the port would be largely offset by the loss of tankers no longer able to drop off light crude oil here.

“They might hire a couple of guys to work on the docks, but that pales in comparison to the impacts on the other jobs that rely on the health of the watershed,” Voorhees said.

“We won’t get tax benefits from this,” said Bartovics. “We’re just a pass-through. And it won’t decrease the cost of oil, because it’s very expensive to extract.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.