LEWISTON, Maine — Somewhere in western Maine, in a steel pipe below the earth, crude oil is making its way north from Portland to refineries in Montreal.

More than 5 billion barrels of oil (210 billion gallons) have moved through the pipeline — the only one of its kind connecting interior Canada to a port in the eastern U.S. — since it opened in 1941.

The 236-mile-long pipeline was constructed to move and refine petroleum needed to fuel the Allies’ World War II efforts against Nazi Germany, and the company that owns it has quietly continued moving crude oil to Montreal for more than 70 years.

So quietly, in fact, that few Mainers knew it was there, including residents of the towns through which the pipeline passes, including Raymond and Harrison, said Joe Bruno, a selectman in Raymond.

“We have a pumping station right at one of our major intersections — well, major for Raymond — and a lot of people don’t know what it is,” said Bruno, a resident of the town for 33 years.

But two statewide environmental organizations have been on a months-long campaign warning residents that the Canadian oil industry wants to reverse the flow of the pipeline. It would then pump so-called “tar sands” crude from oil fields in the province of Alberta to tanker ships in Portland, Maine, headed for the global market, environmentalists say.

A spill, they say, would be an environmental disaster that could damage western Maine’s lakes and rivers and crush a tourism economy built on pristine water.

“ExxonMobil and Canadian oil giant Enbridge plan to use an antiquated oil pipeline that passes right next to Sebago Lake to transport highly corrosive tar-sands oil from Canada to Casco Bay for export,” warns Environment Maine’s website. “We’re working to stop this reckless plan and protect Sebago from the threat of a toxic tar-sands oil spill.”

To that end, Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine have been asking voters or their elected officials in towns that host the pipeline to pass strongly worded resolutions urging the state and federal governments to require full environmental impact studies on any proposal to reverse the flow of oil or to change the type of oil being transported in the pipeline.

“There is significant evidence of additional risks from tar-sands pipelines and tar-sands spills, compared to conventional oil,” said Dylan Voorhees, the NRCM’s clean energy director.

“When it spills, it’s more damaging, more toxic and more difficult to clean up,” he said. “Sebago Lake is a $1 billion tourism economy, and that’s what’s at risk.”

Voorhees said the push to get resolutions passed by boards of selectmen and town meeting voters is important in sending a signal to state and federal policymakers.

“It’s really important that people articulate their concerns now if they want to see an environmental review of this project happen before it is too late,” Voorhees said.

But oil industry and pipeline officials are quick to dispute Voorhees and others, including taking umbrage with the use of the term “tar sands.” The industry prefers the less messy-sounding “oil sands” to describe the products produced in Alberta. (Federal government reports use “oil sands” or just “oil.”)

They also dispute the claim that oil-sands crude is more toxic or corrosive, and that it poses a greater risk than the heavy crude oil now flowing through the pipe. And they deny there is a plan to reverse the flow and bring oil-sands crude through Maine to Portland — although the pipeline’s CEO says he would gladly entertain the idea.

The Michigan spill: Fed says company, not oil, was the problem

The NRCM and Environment Maine point to a spill of oil-sands crude near Marshall, Mich., in 2010. An estimated 20,000 barrels of oil-sands crude spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, eventually spreading to a 40-mile stretch of the river and nearby wetlands.

The cleanup of that spill from a pipeline operated by the oil giant Enbridge is ongoing. Just this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Enbridge to do additional dredging to remove oil deposits left on the riverbed.

The Michigan spill has been used by environmentalists in Maine as an example of what could happen here.

But John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, said environmentalists are contorting the story to scare residents about the pipeline’s owner, a Maine company that has no connection to that spill and has an outstanding environmental record.

Environmentalists also have suggested the spill occurred because the pipeline was carrying oil-sands crude, but an official report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates pipeline spills, determined the spill was not caused by what the pipeline was carrying, but rather by “pervasive organizational failures.”

The report notes that “multiple small corrosion fatigue cracks” in the pipeline that were detected five years before the spill, but not repaired, resulted in an 80-inch crack in the pipeline.

Worsening the situation, for 17 hours after the spill began, pipeline operators failed to acknowledge alarms alerting them to the spill. The NTSB also faulted the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s “weak regulations regarding pipeline assessment and repair criteria.”

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said Enbridge’s employees performed like “Keystone Kops.”

“Likewise,” she said, “for the regulator to delegate too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Bruno, Quinn and others also point to a draft environmental impact study recently released by the U.S. State Department on another proposed oil-sands pipeline: the controversial Keystone XL project.

That project would expand a pipeline running through Nebraska, mainly for the purpose of bringing oil-sands crude out of Canada and into the U.S. for processing.

That study, Quinn said, refutes claims by environmentalists that oil-sands crude is more corrosive and more prone to cause pipeline leaks and spills than typical, heavy crude oil.

Back in Maine, Quinn said the Michigan spill is being used to demonize the Portland Pipe Line Corp. “[Environmentalists] are misleading people about the basic facts,” he said.

A check with state or provincial environmental agencies in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec showed the Portland Pipeline Corp.’s record going back at least 25 years is nearly spotless.

In Maine, a leak in Harrison in 2003 spilled an estimated 1,000 gallons, but was quickly contained and cleaned up by the company, Maine Department of Environmental Protection records show. The spill never reached any open water and did not leach into groundwater.

Meanwhile, Vermont environmental regulators said a look back at enforcement records there produced only one file on the company and it involved a benign leak of testing dye the company was using to do a pressure check on part of its pipeline in early 2000.

Still that hasn’t stopped lawmakers in the Vermont Legislature from working on a bill that would require a state environmental review for reversing the flow of oil in the pipeline.

Environmentalists take it to the towns, with mixed results

In Raymond, Selectman Bruno said he couldn’t vote for a resolution that wasn’t even written by the town’s officials. He joined a 3-2 majority last month voting down the resolution, noting the information coming from environmentalists had lots of holes in it.

“My whole thing is, I’m not out to punish the Portland Pipeline Corporation,” Bruno said. “They’ve been a reliable and trustworthy neighbor for years, and here we have this resolution that makes them out to be this evil company.”

Voting with Bruno was Raymond Selectman Mike Reynolds. Both Bruno and Reynolds said they aren’t opposed to passing a resolution saying the town cares about the environment and wants the government to carefully consider and review any proposed changes to pipeline operations here.

“We had been given a version of the resolution that I felt was unfair,” Reynolds said. “It was very one-sided, and I have what I think is a neutral resolution that did call for review but was not so negative in terms of its portrayal of the local company.”

Reynolds said the board will likely take another resolution up in April. Meanwhile, the neighboring town of Windham heard both sides of the issue and simply decided to not vote on any resolutions, Town Manager Tony Plante said.

Todd Sawyer, a Waterford-based contractor who works for the pipeline company doing vegetation management along the corridor in Maine, said he was disappointed his town voted against tabling a resolution on the issue. The town passed a resolution earlier this month.

Sawyer mows brush and trims overhanging trees along 40 miles of the pipeline corridor each year, completing the work in Maine every four years. His work is done so the company can more easily do aerial inspections of the pipeline with a helicopter or plane.

Having worked closely with the Portland Pipeline Corp., Sawyer said he believes there’s “a lot of misinformation” about the company going around.

“No one wants to see a spill, nobody does,” Sawyer said. “I don’t want to see a spill in my town or any other town along the corridor.”

He said he wishes townspeople were more understanding of a longtime Maine company that’s “trying to maneuver itself through a difficult economy, just like many of us are.”

He said pipeline officials were never given the opportunity to present their side at a recent Waterford town meeting, and that resulted in a poor decision.

“I think they deserve an opportunity to present their facts that could be substantiated or disproved,” Sawyer said. “But they were never given that opportunity. I think sound-minded citizens, when they are given good information, can make good decisions.”

About 20 percent of the oil the Portland Pipeline Corp. currently moves from Portland to Montreal is heavy crude. The rest is light or medium crude and almost all of it is being imported from countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria.

Climate change a factor in the mix

Beyond the possible environmental risks to Maine, environmental groups are concerned about potential degradation of the environment and the landscape caused by the oil sands crude extraction process in Canada.

And underlining all of the other issues for environmentalists is worry that oil sands crude allows people to simply continue burning carbon-based fuels, contributing to greenhouse gases and global climate change.

The NRCM’s Voorhees notes that Canada was the only country that signed the United Nations treaty on global climate change — known as the Kyoto Protocol — and then backed out of it.

“Of course, the United States never signed it, but Canada signed it and they’ve dropped out of it and this is why,” Voorhees said. “Absolutely, 100 percent that’s why, because [producing oil sands crude] is very carbon intensive.”

That said, Quinn acknowledges the supply of oil sands crude is so vast — it’s estimated to be more than 10 percent of the entire global oil reserve — that moving it east to refine it is very probable.

He also said Canada, regardless of U.S. pipeline decisions, will find a way to get the oil to market.

“Does it make more sense to ship this crude oil to China, [which] does not have our limitations and restrictions and is free to burn that crude any way they want?” Quinn asked. “Why shouldn’t it, instead, be [shipped] someplace where people are focused on protecting the environment?”

Higher oil production, including from oil sands, in Alberta and new shale oil supplies in North Dakota have led to a decrease in the demand for foreign crude on the continent, like the kind the Portland Pipeline Corp. now moves north to Montreal.

Without a pipeline reversal project and with decreasing demand for foreign crude, the Maine pipeline could be left without a viable purpose. But moving oil sands crude east from central Canada so it can be processed in refineries in New Brunswick and New Jersey could be a new opportunity for the pipeline, Quinn said.

The pipeline’s CEO, Larry Wilson, said it has been difficult for him and his employees to be embroiled in a controversy about reversing the flow when, so far, the company hasn’t proposed doing that.

“These are good people and we take very seriously our responsibility to the environment in Maine,” Wilson told the Sun Journal.

He said people who are passionate about stopping the use of oil sands crude often overlook that and overlook other key issues surrounding the topic.

“They have determined the most effective way to oppose oil sands crude is to attack our closest, safest and most reliable neighbor, [thereby] preventing Canada’s energy supplies from reaching free and open markets while being delivered by one of the safest, most efficient and reliable modes we have, in pipelines,” Wilson said.

Wilson has said repeatedly he would welcome the opportunity to find new business uses for the 24-inch pipeline.

He has made that pitch in media interviews in the United States and Canada, as well as last month to the Vermont Legislature, but hasn’t specifically proposed reversing the flow.

“We just do not have a project at this time,” Wilson said. “We’d consider any number of opportunities. We continue to do so. And I want people to comprehend one of the opportunities that we have considered, and we’d be happy to consider going forward, is reversal from Montreal into South Portland.”

Raising suspicions such a plan is in the future is that Calgary-based Enbridge Pipelines Inc. is seeking regulatory wording to reverse the flow of a pipeline from Ontario to Montreal, known as Line 9, to carry oil from western Canada to Quebec refineries.

Still, the company flatly denies having any designs on the Portland-Montreal line.

“We have no involvement with that company or that line, so it’s not really for me to speak on their behalf or to speculate in any way to what their plans are,” said Graham White, a spokesman for Enbridge. “The fact that we are reversing Line 9 to the Quebec refineries has no connection whatsoever to the PMPL line or moving any kind of product toward the U.S. coast or Portland.”

Portland-Montreal Pipeline

• Employees: 36

• Year opened: 1941

• Miles of pipe: 236. The pipeline consists of two pipes; one is 18 inches in diameter, the other is 24 inches in diameter.

• Products carried: Light, medium and heavy crude oil.

• Ownership: Two companies share ownership of the pipeline: The Portland Pipeline Corp., a Maine corporation, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Montreal Pipe Line LLC, a privately held company that is incorporated in Canada. Montreal Pipe Line is owned by a collection of companies including Imperial Oil, which is owned, in part by ExxonMobil. Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company, does not hold any ownership stakes in Montreal Pipe Line or the Portland Pipeline Corp.

Oil sands or tar sands?

While environmentalists prefer the term “tar-sands oil,” industry officials prefer the term “oil sands.”

In its unrefined state, the material looks a little like asphalt that would be used to pave a road. It is a mixture of sand, water, clay and a type of heavy oil known as “bitumen.”

The bitumen is the petroleum product refiners are looking for. It is removed from the sand and water, “screened and cleaned,” and diluted, either with lighter-weight crude oil, liquefied natural gas or other liquids.

Unrefined bitumen looks like thick, black syrup.

“Bitumen will not flow unless heated or diluted — at room temperature, it acts much like cold molasses,” according to the Canadian province of Alberta’s website on the resource and its development. “The oil sands are also referred to by some as ‘tar sands,’ as bitumen can have a similar consistency to tar, a human-made product.”

The industry term for oil sands, once it is processed and flowing through a pipeline, is “dilbit” for diluted bitumen.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.