PORTLAND, Maine — Three days after a long-awaited federal report suggested the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would not have a significant effect on climate change, protesters gathered in Portland and three other Maine towns to urge President Barack Obama to reject the study and block the project.

The Keystone XL project proposes to pump 830,000 barrels a day of so-called tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect to existing pipelines leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The [U.S. State Department report] argument is so feeble. They’re saying this stuff is going to be transported out anyway and, basically, we want a piece of the pie,” said Nicole d’Entremont of Peaks Island, one of the Monday night protesters. “But what are we getting a cut of? The end of the planet?

“[Obama] ran on a campaign of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’” she continued. “I don’t see any hope or change in driving this pipeline through the heartland of America.”

The often heated debate over the pipeline resonates in Maine, where environmentalists fear oil companies will soon try to use the existing 236-mile-long Portland-Montreal Pipeline as another pathway to ocean tankers and the international market.

A State Department report on the Keystone XL project released Friday is seen as bolstering the case for the pipeline, finding that it wouldn’t by itself increase carbon pollution significantly.

Environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, 350 Maine and Environment Maine, which led the Portland rally Monday — have decried the report as too limited in scope and potentially colored by the influence of a contractor who may previously have worked for the pipeline developers.

The final decision on whether to permit the project rests with Obama.

Monday evening’s protest in Portland was one of nearly 180 demonstrations in 44 states and Washington, D.C., including ones in Brunswick, Lewiston and Belfast in Maine.

In November, voters in South Portland narrowly rejected an ordinance change that would have disallowed the waterfront improvements the Portland Pipe Line Corp. would have needed to make in order to reverse the flow of the pipe and accommodate the bituminous oil. Among the alterations opponents have long found most offensive are twin 70-foot smokestacks, discussed previously as part of a 2008 pipeline reversal plan that fizzled.

Currently, the 70-year-old pipeline pumps less controversial crude oil from tankers in the Port of Portland to refineries in Montreal.

In the aftermath of the Election Day referendum defeat, the city has assembled a committee to try again to develop an ordinance banning the processing or export of the oil sands product through the port.

“We just got done with the [proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance] drama,” said Nathan Rose, one of Monday night’s protesters from South Portland. “Now it’s a good time to broaden our focus, because more of the local people are educated on tar sands issues.”

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. has maintained it has no current plans to reverse the flow of the Portland-Montreal connection, and made a statement by letting a state emissions permit it would have needed for such a project lapse in the fall.

But company leaders have also acknowledged that they’re open to any move that would keep the company financially viable, and during the referendum debate were quick to point out the pipeline operator is a major economic contributor to the region, paying out $5 million in wages and $700,000 in local property taxes each year.

Environmentalists have opposed the extraction and transportation of the bituminous oil, in part because they say the more corrosive and acidic oil mixture has a greater chance of wearing down pipes and causing toxic leaks near sensitive ecosystems or water bodies. TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry the controversial oil sands bitumen from Alberta across a delicate Nebraska aquifer on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Locally, the Portland-Montreal Pipeline passes by a cove of Sebago Lake, which provides drinking water to about 15 percent of Maine’s population.

Seth Koenig

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