SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In what opponents are characterizing as a reversal of an earlier decision, the U.S. Department of State in August informed the Portland Pipe Line Corp. that it wants to review any future plans the company may propose to reverse the flow of its Montreal-South Portland pipeline to carry so-called tar sands crude, according to a letter obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The letter, which is dated Aug. 13, 2013, is significant because it disputes a 2008 letter from the State Department informing the company that a reversal of its pipeline, which has carried crude oil from its South Portland pier to oil refineries in the Montreal area since World War II, would not represent a change-of-use significant enough to warrant a new federal permit, according to Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, which supplied the letter to the Bangor Daily News.

“We see this as a repudiation of that 2008 letter,” Murphy told the BDN on Monday. “That 2008 letter is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

In the August letter, an official with the Bureau of Energy Resources states that “before the Portland Pipe Line Corporation executes any plans to change the operation of either pipeline in any manner different than its current use and operation, to provide information to the Department for its review and consideration in advance.

“For clarity, such changes in operation could include, but are not limited to, a change in the direction of flow or in the type of crude oil carried by the pipelines.”

The Portland Pipe Line Corp., a fully owned subsidiary of Montreal Pipeline Ltd., does not currently have plans to reverse the flow of its 236-mile pipeline to carry tar sands crude from Canada to Maine. However, it did explore the potential of such a project in 2008 before the economic recession made the project untenable. It was during that process the State Department made its initial decision concerning a new permit.

While the company has no current plans, CEO Larry Wilson told the BDN earlier this year that it would pursue a potential project in the future if it made economic sense for the company.

Jim Merrill, a spokesman for the pipeline company, sent the following comment to the BDN concerning the recent letter from federal overseers (he refers to the company as PMPL, an acronym that stands for Portland-Montreal Pipe Line):

“As PMPL has said consistently, there is no project proposed, pending or imminent. If that ever were to change, PMPL would participate fully in all appropriate local, state and federal regulatory and public processes. The referenced letter is consistent with that commitment.”

The National Wildlife Federation, as well as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, have advocated that any flow reversal to carry tar sands over the 236-mile pipeline from Montreal to South Portland should require a new permitting process.

“This letter falls short of that, but it clearly informs the company that before it moves forward with a new proposal, it should go to the State Department for determination of whether or not permit or review requirements are needed,” Murphy said. “It’s a big step in the right direction.”

The company and its supporters defeated a citizen referendum in early November that would have hampered any attempts to upgrade its pier facilities to handle tar sands by changing South Portland’s waterfront zoning regulations. The City Council is now considering a proposed moratorium on loading tar sands oil onto ships in the harbor.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.