skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Opening door for tar sands to east coast: a bad decision of Olympic proportions

Elizabeth Shope

Posted August 1, 2012

, , , , ,
Share | | |

Guest blog by Shelley Kath, Advisor and Senior Consultant to NRDC

Last week, Canada’s energy and pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB), approved Enbridge’s plan to reverse one of its pipelines that in the future may carry tar sands oil. This decision may well signal the revival of the “Trailbreaker” pipeline project that would bring tar sands through the Great Lakes, through Ontario and Quebec to New England for export. As a recently published NRDC report, Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England, details, such a project carries serious risks to the people and environment all along the pipeline path.  

Crooked River Credit Landis Hudson, Maine Rivers.JPG

Photo: Crooked River in Maine. Credit: Landis Hudson/Maine Rivers

This new NEB decision arrived amidst a flood of information about Enbridge’s pipeline fails, ironically the same day that yet another Enbridge pipeline (Line 14 in Grand Marsh, Wisconsin) experienced a spill. Looking at the details, we can see that the decision allows Enbridge to reverse the flow of crude on Line 9 from Sarnia to Westover (a rural community outside Hamilton, Ontario). It is “Phase 1” of Enbridge’s plan to reverse the entire length of Line 9, all the way to Montreal, where it connects with the Portland Montreal Pipeline (PMPL), owned by Montreal Pipe Line Limited. The pipe tagged for reversal on that line is 62 years old, and the spectre of having dirty, corrosive tar sands flowing through that 236-mile line is alarming pipeline pathway residents from Montreal to Maine.

After leaving Quebec, the pipeline cuts across the beautiful Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, the spectacular White Mountains in New Hampshire, and on its run south to Maine’s Casco Bay, passes critical drinking water sources. The last two years of attempts to clean up the 1 million gallon tar sands oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan has helped local communities recognize that a tar sands oil spill could hurt health, pollute water and devastate wildlife, as well as cripple local, tourist-dependent economies.

Trailbreaker Map.JPG

Montreal Pipe Line Limited (MPLL) is owned in large part by Exxon Mobil [1] and its Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil Limited, with a smaller portion owned by Suncor Energy.  So, to Enbridge’s track record on pipeline spills, one must also add Exxon Mobil’s oil spills, such as  the well-known Exxon Valdez spill and more recently the 2011 Exxon Mobil pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River.  Two of MPLL’s direct owners, Imperial and Suncor are the largest developers of Alberta’s tar sands.

After Enbridge announced “Phase 1” of the Line 9 reversal in August, 2011, environmental organizations suspected that this was “Trailbreaker” reborn and being pursued in piecemeal fashion. They asked the NEB to demand that Enbridge reveal its larger plans, and whether or not the Sarnia-to-Westover reversal was part of a larger plan to reverse the whole line to Montreal. In its response to the NEB, Enbridge flatly denied that Phase 1 “is not the former Trailbreaker Project” and that it “is a standalone project, and is not dependent on any other projects.” The NEB seemed to support this fiction in December 2011 by declaring that it considered “the Line 9 Reversal Phase 1 application to be a standalone project”.  Ultimately, the NEB limited strictly the input from Canadian and U.S. environmental organizations, specifically excluding from the list of issues under consideration any discussion of Phase 2 or impacts from a related reversal in New England.

But as soon as the doors closed on the public hearing process for Phase 1, Enbridge announced details of its “Phase 2” plans for reversing the rest of Line 9, to Montreal. In fact, Enbridge claimed boldly in a May 2012 document describing its project expansions that the reversal of the 240,000 bpd Line 9B between Westover, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec “is expected to be available for service in early 2014 to serve refineries in Quebec.”  Enbridge, however, hasn’t even yet filed an application for “Phase 2” -- putting the cart before the horse. The Phase 2 application is expected sometime this fall

Returning to the NEB approval on Phase 1, it should be noted that – thanks to environmental group pressure – the decision doesn’t authorize transport of heavy crude: Enbridge would have to apply again to the NEB to have tar sands flow through this pipeline.  What is clear is that this new process should involve a full review of the impacts of the full pipeline system carrying tar sands oil, the risks and an evaluation of whether a new system for tar sands oil transportation to the east is even needed.  A full review would show that not only does a tar sands pipeline system not bring benefits to the Great Lakes, Ontario, Quebec and New England, but the costs are higher than any of these communities are willing to bear.


[1] Exxon Mobil has a 69.6% interest in Imperial Oil Limited, according to the company’s 2011 Annual Report (Form 10-K) filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It appears that Imperial Oil Limited, along with its wholly-owned subsidiary, McColl-Frontenac Petroleum Inc., own approximately 76.2% of Montreal Pipeline Limited (while Suncor holds 23.8%) based on information derived from Imperial’s 2011 Annual Report (SEC Form 10-K), Suncor’s 2011 Annual Report (SEC Form 40-F), and Montreal Pipe Line Limited’s April 16, 2012 filing with the Registraire des Entreprises du Québec (translated: Business Registry of Quebec).

Share | | |


BSAug 1 2012 08:55 PM

I like how you have to go all the way back to the 1980s to vilify ExxonMobil. The Exxon Valdez spill actually catalyzed dramatic improvements in safety and environmental performance for the oil industry.

And now, we have the US pipeline industry poised (fingers crossed....) to have it's best year ever in terms of barrels spilled and other safety and environmental metrics.

RBHAug 2 2012 09:45 AM

There are refineries and shipping terminals in Montreal. Getting heavy crude to Montreal captures most of the value. the additional cost and PR headache of reversing the flow between Montreal and Portland probably outweighs the additional value of getting the crude to the Atlantic coast.

would you rather have your gasoline made from oil produced in Alberta and pumped across the continent in pipelines regulated by democracies, or produced by kings and dictators and shipped across the oceans? I'll take option #1 please.

ShinawehAug 3 2012 09:41 AM

How about we convert to a non-carbon economy ASAP, rather than pour our tax dollars into this desperate attempt to squeeze the last few remaining, most toxic drops of oil from the earth??

Comments are closed for this post.


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

Feeds: Stay Plugged In