New Englanders Invade DC to Stay Tar Sands Free

I’m from New Hampshire, which (unless you listen to Texans) is the greatest state in the Union — I grew up fishing for perch off the dock at Lake Winnipesaukee, catching frogs in the woods behind my house, and skiing in the White Mountains. Although we have a few cities, NH is mostly defined by its small towns and a pace of life that’s a far cry from Washington, DC, where I live now. Until recently, there wasn’t much overlap between my background and my work fighting dirty fuels like tar sands, but all that changed when the oil industry decided to try to sneak a tar sands pipeline project through NH, Maine and Vermont.

Mt. Wonalancet, NH, not far from the route of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline (photo: Chris Schoenboem)
Mt. Wonalancet, NH, not far from the route of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline (photo: Chris Schoenboem)
We’ve talked about the Northeast pipeline quite a bit on this blog, but here’s the basic story: Right now, the 60+ year old Portland-Montreal Pipeline transports regular oil from the coast of Maine up to refineries in Canada. The company (which is majority-owned by Exxon) wants to reverse the flow of this line and change the product it carries — instead of oil, they want to transport over 12 million gallons per day of tar sands, the same poisonous, corrosive stuff that was at the heart of the pipeline disasters in Arkansas last month and in 2010 in Michigan. This plan obviously has people worried, and making matters worse is that the company, which doesn’t have a “formal” proposal yet, seems to believe it has all the federal approval it needs to turn on the pumps.

Fighting back against Big Oil

Fortunately, New Englanders aren’t known to let themselves get trampled on. Local conservation groups, public health experts and many others has been fighting back against Exxon, bringing widespread attention to the project — enough that we have the support of nearly the entire Congressional delegation from those three states (Senator Ayotte, we’re still waiting on ya). We even managed to get 1,500 people to a rally in Portland back in frigid January, the biggest gathering of any kind in 25 years. Suffice to say, New Englanders care, and we don’t want this dangerous substance pumped through our rivers and forests, threatening species like moose and black bears and contributing to climate change.

The problem is, the US State Department (which is tasked with overseeing the pipeline) doesn’t necessarily notice anything amiss and hasn’t the told the company it can’t proceed without a new permit. The State Department needs to make it clear: if Exxon wants to bring poisonous, climate-wrecking tar sands across Northern New England, the impacts are going to be given a hard look and approval is going to needed. It’s a common sense requirement, just making sure we know the threats and the particulars before giving the green light to Exxon, but State hasn’t gotten involved yet because the company hasn’t made a formal proposal.

And that’s the catch-22: unless the State Department tells them to formalize their plans, Exxon might never get around to filing the paperwork — and they’ve already told regional officials they don’t have to. They’re more than happy to act like the cartoon cat burping up feathers, shrugging its shoulders when you ask what happened to Tweety Bird. But this is real life, and New Englanders want to protect their region and wildlife from spills and climate change.  All risk and no reward does not interest New Hampshire, or Vermont or Maine for that matter.

Mr. Smith (and a bunch more) goes to Washington

New England and DC — culture-wise — may sometimes feel like oil and water, but when actual oil and actual water are in the mix, it’s worth a trip to the nation’s capitol. On Monday, a group from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont came down to Washington, DC to tell their stories to State Department officials in person. It wasn’t your usual DC lobby trip: Fishermen, retired oil industry lawyers, and a handful of conservationists all made the rounds of Capitol Hill, meeting with agencies and Congressional offices with a simple request: Can someone PLEASE make sure this tar sands plan is carefully reviewed?

Our homegrown lobby team at the State Department (photo: Peter LaFontaine/NWF)
Our hometown lobby team at the State Department (photo: Peter LaFontaine/NWF)
To their credit, State sent their A-team to meet with us, including Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones, who’s also been in charge of State’s Keystone XL analysis and is also a former resident of Maine. We showed how the pieces stack up to make it clear that the Northeast project was moving forward. Lisa Pohlmann, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, talked about the pipeline’s zigzag route across the Crooked River, and Eliot Stanley of the Sebago Lake Anglers Association told how a spill would devastate fishing in the region. Denis Rydjeski, a Dartmouth College professor, drew the connections between the Portland-Montreal Pipeline and another Exxon holding: the Pegasus pipeline that caused havoc in Mayflower, Arkansas earlier this spring. His sister lives not far from Mayflower, and it brought home the fact that disasters aren’t something that just happen to “other people.”

Pushing toxic, spill-prone tar sands through Exxon’s pipeline across Maine is an all-risk, no-reward proposition. The health of Maine people, our economy, and our way of life, depend on clean water for drinking, tourism, our fishing industry, and recreation. – Lisa Pohlmann, Natural Resources Council of Maine

We plan to keep the heat on Exxon and the State Department, and our group also got a chance to sit down with (deep breath…) the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to talk about updating our nation’s safety standards for tar sands projects like the Northeast pipeline and Keystone XL. After Mayflower — and Kalamazoo, before that — we can’t trust the industry to operate safely, or even to tell us what they have planned for our back yards.

It can be hard to tell with federal agencies, but I think State got the message.

Take Action ButtonTell the US State Department to protect New England’s wildlife and communities from this dangerous and polluting project. Say “NO!” to the Portland-Montreal tar sands pipeline.