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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Burlington City Council passes resolutions opposing tar sands oil: the beginning of a groundswell against tar sands in New England

Elizabeth Shope

Posted December 20, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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This blog was jointly written with NRDC Senior Consultant Shelley Kath.

Big Oil has a plan that will put communities at risk in New England and Eastern Canada. The Portland-Montreal Pipeline – a very old oil pipeline owned mostly by ExxonMobil – may be reversed to enable dirty corrosive tar sands oil to be pumped through Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom en route to Portland, Maine, part of a broader project including the reversal of an Enbridge pipeline through Eastern Canada. But not if Vermont communities have a say. On Monday night, Burlington, Vermont took a bold and important step toward taking Vermont – and New England – on the path to being “tar sands free.” By a vote of 10 to 4, the Council passed two resolutions, each of which will help Vermont take concrete action to say a firm “No” to both the transport of tar sands and its role as a potential fuel source in New England. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger voiced strong support for both resolutions and signed them into effect this morning. This is just the beginning of a groundswell against tar sands in New England. Last week, 350 Vermont, NRDC and other national and local partners published a toolkit to help Vermont activists in working to secure anti-tar sands resolutions at their town meeting days in March; concerned citizens have sprung into action, working to secure passage of resolutions opposing tar sands and supporting policies that discourage tar sands such as a Clean Fuel Standard in dozens of New England towns. Hundreds of citizens will also come together in late January for a major rally in Portland, Maine opposing proposals to bring tar sands to the East Coast, as well as a number of local solidarity actions.

We Are the Kalamazoo Event in Northeast Kingdom, VT July 2012 Credit: Tar Sands Free Northeast

The ExxonMobil tar sands pipeline to Portland, Maine would put New England communities at risk of facing a toxic spill like the one into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan that occurred over two years ago and is still being cleaned up. Tar sands underlie an area of Alberta, Canada approximately the size of Florida. The Boreal forest in Alberta is being decimated by Big Oil companies extracting tar sands. Caribou, black bears, fish, and migratory birds are all being caught in the crossfire. Even worse, communities downstream are facing high rates of rare cancers.

For the sake of profits, Big Oil wants to send this bottom of the barrel tar sands oil through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – oil that causes 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil over its full life-cycle and that isn’t even really like oil. Tar sands is practically a solid, so before getting sent through pipelines, they dilute it, creating a substance called diluted bitumen which must be transported at high temperatures and pressures, creating a greater risk for pipeline spills, and a much riskier situation when the pipelines do spill.

Communities across North America are rising up and saying no to dirty tar sands oil. This pipeline through Vermont is not the only tar sands pipeline proposal. Other tar sands pipeline proposals include the Northern Segment of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, from where the tar sands could ultimately reach the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia coast. There has been tremendous opposition to all of these proposals, with millions of people writing, protesting, and rallying against them. Communities are rightly worried that they could be the next to face a spill like the million gallon one into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010 which is still getting cleaned up – and about the climate impacts of increased reliance on dirty fuels like tar sands.

Burlington’s leadership on this issue in passing these anti-tar sands resolutions is an important first step in standing up to tar sands in New England. The first resolution includes various specific measures, including: a declaration of opposition to tar sands transport on the Portland-Montreal pipeline; requirements that fuel vendors identify the refineries that supply them, and that the city avoid buying tar sands-sourced fuel whenever possible;  support for policies such as a Clean Fuels Standard to help keep such fuel out of the region’s fuel supply; and a request to the City Retirement Board that it pursue divestment of funds from companies that profit from tar sands. The second resolution requires a nonbinding ballot item to be placed before Burlington voters in March, affording them an opportunity to weigh in directly on some of these anti-tar sands measures.

The tar sands pipeline to Portland, Maine is a bad bet not just for New England but for the planet. Tar sands takes us in the wrong direction when we need to slow climate change, and create a clean energy future. Increasing climate change pollution puts treasured Vermont economic drivers at risk – the ski industry, sugaring, tourism, fall foliage, and creates stronger storms, more serious droughts and wildfires, and other major threats to livelihood across the United States and beyond. What we need is clean energy and policies like a clean fuels standard that incentivize the use of low carbon fuels and discourage the use of high carbon fuels like tar sands. Burlington’s actions provide inspiration to municipalities everywhere seeking to take concrete action toward a clean energy future.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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