M.D. Harmon: What liberals won't tell you about "tar sands:" It's not dirty. It's just oil.


Alberta.Tar sands

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone to be told that when liberal politicians and green lobbying groups say they object to “tar sands oil,” no matter what they say about it, the part of that term that they object to the most is “oil.”

The “tar sands” part is just a handy club that people such as Portland’s Mayor Michael Brennan, a number of his colleagues on the City Council and groups like Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine use to further their efforts to keep Maine from ever being asked to help distribute one of the richest oil finds in the world: Canada’s Athabasca Sands bitumen deposits.

The Alberta fields reportedly contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, with about 10 percent—or 175 billion barrels—economically recoverable at the present time, reportedly making Canada’s “proven reserves” the second-largest in the world.

Because its extraction byproducts produce more carbon dioxide emissions per barrel than regular crude production (but still a miniscule amount compared to vast, ongoing emissions from coal-fired power plants in India and China), and because the extracted oil is thicker than “Texas sweet crude” (but no thicker than current oil produced in Mexico, Venezuela and even California), activists call it “dirty oil,” a propaganda label rather than a scientific one, industry experts say.

The Athabasca Sands deposits could meet 15 percent of U.S. daily needs for 186 years, scientists say, and advocates of U.S. energy self-sufficiency note that Canada is already this country’s primary crude oil and petroleum supplier.

BUT IN MAINE and elsewhere, anti-oil politicians and environmental groups (most of whom still presumably own cars, fly on airplanes and use products made plastics) are fighting hard to be sure that Canada’s vast resources are barred from our borders.

Mayor Brennan and members of the Portland City Council are considering whether to ban the use of any fuel derived from Canada’s tar sands in the city’s municipal fleet (though, considering how fuels and other refinery products are mixed and distributed, that might be a challenging task if the United States ever does begin importing it).

The full council voted Wednesday to study the matter further, even though the mayor and the council’s three-member Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee support it.

A rally set for Saturday is said to be bringing “hundreds of people from across New England” to the city to protest any pipeline plans.

And the town of Casco voted earlier this month to bar tar sands oil from ever being transported across that community’s territory.

ATHABASCA OIL HAS been on the U.S. foreign-policy horizon for years, due to a Canadian proposal to build a new pipeline, the Keystone XL project, to carry its production from Alberta to refineries in the United States. Once here, it could be used to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, home heating oil and other products used daily in Maine and every other state.

And every gallon, of course, would mean one less gallon would have to be purchased from Saudi Arabia or other Mideast or Latin American oil oligarchies, such as Venezuela, whose policies and priorities are often opposed to our own.

Keystone, of course, was ready to be approved last year by the State Department (which has authority over cross-border projects) when President Obama, in the heat of a political campaign and eager to appease his green backers, put it on hold pending “environmental review” (despite the fact that years of such reviews had already been conducted).

That led Canadian authorities to say that if the United States really doesn’t want the oil, the Chinese certainly do, and they will sell it to them instead. That makes the greens’ complaints about its extraction entirely irrelevant.

NOW, THE GOVERNOR of Nebraska has given a hearty thumbs-up to the route chosen for the Keystone pipeline to cross underground water supplies and other sensitive geological areas in his state.

But, Gov. Dave Heineman wrote Obama this week, the new route avoids the most sensitive areas, and if it were to be built, it would provide $418 billion in economic benefits, provide $16 billion in use taxes for construction materials and give communities it crossed between $11 billion and $13 billion per year in property tax revenues.

And he concluded, “Construction and operation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, with mitigation and commitments from Keystone, would have minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska.”

So that ball is back in Obama’s court, with a lot of construction unions (another one of his favored constituencies) solidly behind the project and the thousands of jobs it would create.

Maine’s greens are now pushing the idea that Canada wants to reverse the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to bring Athabasca oil to tankers in Portland Harbor, instead of the tankers offloading oil here for Canadian use.

Though the idea may be in the works, no proposal has yet been filed to do it. Even if it does come about, industry sources say that it would be the same product moving through it, just heading south instead of north.

That’s the position of the guy who comes across as the one lonely voice of reason amid all the politically charged hoopla in this discussion.

JOHN QUINN IS the executive director of the New England Petroleum Council in Boston, and he has found himself in near-monastic solitude as a plaintive voice offering facts in response to the loaded rhetoric directed at those who might dare to think an economy that runs on oil could use safe, secure, North American supplies of it.

In a column in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Oct. 21, Quinn wrote, “Just as there is no reason to fear unsubstantiated rumors, however, there is equally no reason to fear an energy product that has been transported safely throughout the United States for decades.

“Known in the industry as ‘diluted bitumen,’ crude oil derived from the Canadian oil sands is still a relatively new idea to many Americans, making it an easy target for opposition campaigns intent on derailing oil pipeline projects at any cost. So opponents incessantly describe it as ‘different,’ ‘dirty’ and ‘dangerous.’ But the only thing dirty about crude oil from the Canadian oil sands is the secret they don’t want you to know: It’s just oil.”

That is, Quinn says, the oil that is put into pipelines from Alberta has already been cleaned of the very things its critics say it contains.

And, he notes, “Since it began keeping detailed statistics, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal regulatory agency for the U.S. pipeline industry, has not reported a single case of pipeline corrosion caused by oil sands crude. Despite opposition claims that the 2010 (pipeline spill) incident on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan could have been avoided had the line transported a less ‘corrosive’ crude oil, the National Transportation Safety Board recently concluded that it was external conditions only—and specifically not what was flowing through it—that caused the pipe to rupture.”

As Quinn concludes, “There is no credible evidence to suggest that Canadian oil sands crude is dirtier or more dangerous than other crude oil. Equally, according to Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, there are no current plans to reverse the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to transport these oil sands crudes. With these points in mind, there is no reason to continue letting fossil fuel opponents lead you to believe that Maine is at any elevated risk from oil sands crudes or the pipelines that have operated safely in Maine for years.”

Not that mere facts have stopped the critics. What, we might wonder, happened to all those folks who told us to “trust the science” on other environmental issues? Apparently, that only counts when it can be spun to support their views.

If it doesn’t, it can be ignored—all for the sake of an ideology expressed by a few ideologues that is directly opposed to the future prosperity and energy security of millions of American businesses and consumers.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:mdharmoncol@yahoo.com.

UPDATE: No plans to pipe “tar sands” through Portland.

This press release was issued Friday by Enbridge, which operates North America’s largest crude oil transmission pipeline network:

Please note that contrary to recent reports and claims by some environmental and protest groups in the region, Enbridge has no plans or proposals whatsoever to transport any crude products, including diluted bitumen, through the pipelines of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line company that runs from Portland, Maine to Montreal, Quebec.

Further, this is not an Enbridge pipeline, and Enbridge has no affiliation with the company that operates the line. The “Trailbreaker” project is not being pursued and was terminated in 2009. The current Line 9 Reversal Project is to promote access of Canadian and U.S. Bakken crude to Canadian refineries in Ontario and Quebec and does not involve any plans to transport crude past Montreal.

For more information on Enbridge’s Line 9 project please see the information at the following link: http://www.enbridge.com/ECRAI/Line9BReversalProject.aspx

Enbridge owns and operates the continent’s largest crude oil transmission pipeline network and is also a North American leader in the development of green and renewable energy, generating more than a thousand kilowatts of power through wind and solar farms. Enbridge has invested more than three billion dollars in these initiatives and projects over the past ten years: http://www.enbridge.com/DeliveringEnergy/RenewableEnergy.aspx).



  1. Maybe the tar sands should go the shortest route to China, through British Columbia… Who would opt for the pipeline through Maine or the US central plains… Profit motivated Big Oil..

  2. Mr Harmon might do well as a shill for the tar sands oil (TSO) industry, but he’s definitely not to be trusted as an objective reporter. I have attended several industry presentations on this topic; one featured Mr Quinn of the American Petroleum Institute with a decidedly testy attitude that didn’t do his case any good. Because of those meetings and other authoritative info, I’m very concerned:
    1. The Portland Pipeline passes within a few hundred yards of our home in western Maine. We were alarmed by news of the devastating effects on over 30 miles of of the Kalamazoo River 2.5 years ago. It’s still not cleaned up and at over $800m and counting it now ranks as the 2nd most expensive oil spill in U.S. history. Haven’t heard much about it, have you?
    2. The global financial collapse and closing of our forest products mills left our regional economy in an extremely fragile state, relying mostly on tourism to our pristine and unique natural environs.
    3. A spill into our waterways anything like Kalamazoo would devastate our entire region, relegate us to long-enduring 3rd world status and trash years of development investment.
    4. The spill incident rate for TSO is 3 times greater than that for ‘ordinary’ crude, with untold environmental and economic impacts.
    5. The industry claims that TSO is basically the same as ‘ordinary’ crude. It isn’t, because the diluents used to make TSO liquid enough to pump make it more toxic and flammable than ‘ordinary’ crude. Many folks along the Kalamazoo were sickened by vapors and their homes and businesses were evacuated. They remain closed today and some are being bought out by the industry.
    6. The words of the industry defy reason. For example, while stating “no plans” for TSO actions in our region: a. they continue to build infrastructure to accommodate it, including burn-offs at the Portland Maine Pier to dispose of the volatiles at that transfer point. b. they’re extending the reversal of TSO pipelines in Canada all the way to Montreal -the terminal for our Portland Pipeline Co. Their CEO admits that they “would welcome any business opportunity, including this”.

    In addition, there are huge, high-stakes environmental, climate, health and human factors that I won’t attempt to discuss here. Let me conclude by stating that from my perspective articles such as Harmons (above) serve the industry at great costs to humanity. We’ve all got to awaken to address these issues as involved, informed and energized citizens determined to take charge of our future. There is no more time to waste.


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