Approval of Line 9B puts Canadian communities at risk while bringing tar sands oil to New England's doorstep

This blog was co-authored with Shelley Kath and additional help from Josh Axelrod.

Today, Canada’s energy and pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB), approved a local, pipeline project that would transport tar sands eastward, from Ontario to terminals just outside Montreal, Québec.  This decision is a slap in the face to communities along the pipeline’s route who will bear the brunt of the environmental, safety, and health risks that tar sands pipelines create.  For New England residents, today’s decision also means that this dirty and dangerous fuel source could be arriving on its doorstep.  With this approval, the threat of tar sands oil being sold to New England consumers has become very real because Line 9B connects to the existing Montreal-Portland pipeline, which has been targeted by industry as a way for getting tar sands into New England.  Today’s decision should energize residents of New England to stand up and say unequivocally:  We do not want tar sands in our communities and we do not want to play any role in encouraging the tar sands industry to continue with its irresponsible and dangerous development.

While opponents of this highly controversial pipeline proposal are rightfully lamenting the NEB’s decision as a large and harmful step in the wrong direction, the tar sands industry isn’t likely popping champagne corks at the approval either.  This is because the “Line 9B Reversal and Capacity Expansion Project” is “small potatoes” for a massive industry focused on supplying tar sands to overseas markets in order to fetch higher international prices. Line 9B is geographically limited and has never been viewed by the tar sands industry as playing a role in driving the expansion of tar sands projects.  While any expansion of tar sands development and production is clearly unwise from an environmental, climate, and health risks perspective, the proposed Line 9B reversal project is not tied to tar sands expansion the way that export-focused projects like Keystone XL and Energy East are.

Graphic: National Energy Board

The Line 9B project would reverse the direction oil flows through an existing 400-mile pipeline running through parts of Ontario and Quebec, and increase its existing capacity by 60,000 barrels per day (to reach a maximum new capacity of 300,000 bpd). Enbridge, the pipeline’s owner and operator, filed its application to reverse the pipeline’s flow direction, between North Westover, Ontario and Montreal, Québec, on November 29, 2012.  In addition to requesting reversal and capacity expansion on the entire length of the line, Enbridge also asked the NEB for a revision to the Rules and Regulations Tariff that would specifically allow transportation of tar sands in its pipeline.

As NRDC has said in the past (see Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England), the transport of tar sands through Ontario, Quebec and potentially New England, raises unacceptable risks for the health, safety, and environment of local communities. Citizens in Ontario and Quebec have made it clear that they are skeptical, at best, about Enbridge’s claims regarding pipeline safety measures. Many along the route of the pipeline in Ontario and Quebec remember well that it was an Enbridge pipeline that burst in Michigan in July 2010, contaminating the Kalamazoo River and causing the costliest oil spill in U.S. history.  

As if that weren’t enough, pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz, whose firm studied the state of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, has indicated that the pipeline is at high risk for rupture.  A recent news report detailing some of the problems with the line revealed that Enbridge undertook some 308 “maintenance digs” along line 9 from July to December of last year, and “the vast majority were for cracks in the line.”

In light of all this, there is no doubt that the NEB’s approval of Line 9 is a bad move. It puts numerous communities and major cities like Toronto and Montreal at risk of joining ranks with Marshall, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas, cities that have experienced devastating tar sands spills.

And while an approval of this pipeline is unacceptable, it is also important to reiterate that Line 9 has not been linked to the expansion of tar sands development thousands of miles away in Alberta.  Instead, this pipeline will serve primarily domestic markets and carry oil from both the tar sands development area as well as from projects in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  Further explanation of these points is provided below.

Approval does not provide industry with significant takeaway capacity:  Industry does not view Line 9 as furthering the tar sands industry’s goals for massive growth.  The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, for example, chose not to represent the Line 9B pipeline project in its June 2013 crude oil forecast report that discussed pipeline takeaway capacity in relation to projected growth in western Alberta tar sands production (see chart below).  Another reason Line 9 does not figure significantly in tar sands industry plans is simply that it will not carry tar sands alone. According to Enbridge, Line 9 will also carry Bakken crude, which in Canada is sourced primarily from shale formations under Saskatchewan and Manitoba

Approval does not mean easy access to overseas export markets – a key goal in the large-scale expansion of the tar sands industry:  The Line 9B project will likely supply refineries in Ontario and Quebec rather than export crude internationally. Access to the larger ports on the Atlantic coast is viewed as a key determinant for the tar sands industry to enable them to significantly expand production by pursuing large-scale access to overseas markets.  

Approval does not increase the tar sands industry’s cross-border capacity: The tar sands industry has always put great weight on its need to deliver to U.S. markets, but as currently designed, the Line 9B project’s focus on local markets and its geographically limited reach does not provide easy U.S. market access. 

Approval takes tar sands one step closer to moving through Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, though the tar sands industry will face major obstacles: Because the project will allow transport of tar sands on Line 9, and since Line 9 has a pre-existing linkage with the Montreal-Portland pipeline, the potential exists for tar sands export to Portland, Maine.  This option, however, is fraught with serious obstacles for industry including fierce public opposition (including resolutions in a total of 67 communities in New England and Quebec) and concerns raised by local communities and the State of Vermont, which could become a permanent barrier. Additionally, reversal of the Montreal-Portland pipeline would involve a completely separate approval process in Canada and since it crosses the U.S.-Canada border, a Presidential Permit as well.