When talk in Portland and South Portland was heating up about whether to block the Portland Pipe Line Co. from dealing in the much maligned so-called “tar sands” oil, company officials warned that doing so could undermine their business in the future.
Many company supporters said the question facing local people boiled down to: Are you willing to give up all the jobs and economic activity the pipeline brings in exchange for some environmental peace of mind?
To paraphrase the results of almost two years of debate, particularly at the South Portland City Council level, the answer was: Yes.
(For a slightly more in-depth review, after a much wider ranging ordinance proposal was previously rejected by voters at the polls, the council in July of 2014 approved a more specific measure effectively banning the reverse of the pipeline’s flow, and by extension blocking prospects of moving oil sands crude from Canada, through Maine and to tankers on the sea.)
Now, it seems the city’s conviction could be put to the test.
According to Platts, an energy trade news publication, the 75-year-old Portland pipeline has dried up as of January 2016, the most recent month for which industry data is available. As additional evidence, Platts’ cargo tracking software has found that crude oil shipments to the South Portland terminal facility have come to a stop thus far in 2016.
There were 30 cargoes into South Portland in 2015, for comparison, and in January of last year, the pipeline glugged about 104,500 barrels of light crude per day. But Platts reported that number dropped precipitously over the course of the year, falling all the way down to 19,435 barrels a day in December before the proverbial spigot was turned off.
Jim Merrill, a spokesman for the Portland Pipe Line Corp., didn’t answer questions Wednesday about whether the company has changed staffing levels in recent months, nor would he address reports of the oil dry-up.
“Portland Pipe Line Corporation does not comment on its business operations or product movements,” he said in a statement. “The company’s challenge of the city’s ordinance remains in litigation.”
Back during the heat of the debate over the South Portland ordinance, the Maine Energy Marketers Association warned the city could lose 5,600 jobs and $252 million in accumulated earnings over a decade’s time if the pipeline got choked out. Now it appears the pipeline has been choked out.
On to the question of why.
According to Platts, the long-expected reversal of Enbridge Line 9 is now complete. Line 9 connects Sarnia, Ontario, to the refineries in Montreal, and completes a chain that ultimately stretches back to the very productive oil sands of Alberta in the west.
With all that oil reaching Montreal from within the continent, the refineries don’t need to receive crude oil from international shipments coming in through South Portland.
Oil companies could still find use for the 236-mile-long Maine pipeline, according to industry experts, but that use would most likely be as a way to get that Alberta oil out to tankers. Which would mean a reversal of the current south-to-north flow and the offloading of oil to ships, steps not currently allowed thanks to South Portland’s aforementioned ordinance.
(The pipeline company has called the ordinance an illegal infringement on federal laws that regulate international commerce, and is fighting the measure in a court battle that is ongoing.)
The conversation surrounding oil sands bitumen in the U.S. has been hot, with heavy protests over the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline through middle America, as well as national attention paid to the potentially precedent-setting South Portland ordinance.
Environmentalists have long argued that because of its thicker nature, oil sands bitumen must be heavily diluted with toxic chemicals in order to be pushed through existing pipelines, creating a corrosive sludge that’s three times more likely to cause leaks.
One such leak from another of Enbridge’s lines along Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 caused the temporary evacuation of as many as 50 households and contaminated more than 25 miles of the waterway.
In Maine, the pipeline in question goes by tributaries to Sebago Lake, where 15 percent of the state’s population gets its drinking water, and several municipalities along the way have passed symbolic resolutions opposing the transportation of the thicker oil through their communities.
Portland pipeline officials countered that, since a previous 2008 reversal plan fizzled, there had been no serious talks of accommodating the more controversial oil, suggesting any protests were at best premature.
They also repeatedly pointed to the Maine pipeline’s sparkling safety record, and said if any plans for oil sands bitumen did emerge, the company would be well-qualified to pursue them safely.
Now, it may be a moot point, as Canadian oil firms are pressing forward without waiting for the Maine pipeline court case to play out. There are other ways to get their oil to international markets.
In what could be really good or really bad news, depending on which side of the debate you’re on, that ship may have sailed.
One Canadian industry expert, when asked by Platts about the current prospects for the Portland pipeline, basically shrugged.
Said Patricia Mohr, a vice president and commodity market specialist with Scotiabank: “I don’t think there has been much consideration of the Portland pipeline.”