350 Maine Holds Demonstration at Sebago Lake
A pipeline running northwest from South Portland, Maine across New Hampshire’s North Country and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on its way to Montreal has been carrying crude oil since it was built in 1941. When the Portland Pipe Line
Corporation, which owns and operates the line, announced in 2010 that it would study reversing the flow and carrying oil from Montreal to Maine, it touched off resistance among activists paying attention to the controversies over extraction and shipment of oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada.
Yesterday more than 150 of those activists rallied at Maine’s Sebago Lake State Park, which borders the pipeline and would be directly threatened by a pipeline leak like the one that spilled 800,000 gallons of toxics into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in July 2010.
“You would never know there was a pipeline under our feet,” said Chloe Maxmin, a 21-year old Maine resident and Harvard student who started a project to force the Cambridge institution to divest its holdings in fossil fuel corporations. The pipeline corridor is marked by non-descript yellow signs within sight of the lake, which not only provides recreational opportunities but also supplies drinking water to Portland.
Maxmin said she initiated the divestment project when she realized Portland Pipe Line is 65% owned by Exxon Mobil.
The dangers to the environment posed by tar sands extraction are increasingly well known, thanks mostly to those who have been resisting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands project to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. Because the tar sands oil, also called “bitumen,” is so thick, extraction requires injection of steam and solvents, which means that huge amounts of energy are needed to make its energy available for human use. Moreover, transportation of the highly viscous substance via pipelines over long distances requires it to be diluted with toxic chemicals including benzene, toluene, and xylene.
The oil spill danger was dramatized by a skit staged by Lee Chisholm, with a few dozen volunteers hoisting a pipeline model, unrolling a black tarp representing an oil spill into the lake, and “poisoning” a flotilla of activists in inner tubes.
Activists chanted “Our water, our land, our future, no tar sands,” and sang new words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (Despite the valiant efforts of organizers to instill a spirit of creativity into the demonstration, some participants couldn’t resist chanting “hey hey ho ho, tar sands have got to go.”)
The rally, which sadly was isolated from the sight of most people enjoying yesterday’s sun at Sebago Lake, was organized by 350 Maine, the local affiliate of 350.org, the now-global movement to raise awareness about climate change and the need to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels. The event was kicked off with spirit by Melodeego, a Boston-based band whose performance was powered by four volunteers pedaling a bicycle generator. Following the skit, a short rally featured talks by Chloe Maxmin; Connie Cross, who led a campaign for passage of a town resolution opposing the use of the pipeline for tar sands oil; Carol Masterson, a South Portland artist organizing local opposition at the site where the pipeline starts (or ends); Sylvia Stormwalker, a Maine activist who has been working with XL opponents in Texas; Reed Brugger, a 350 Maine activist who was recently arrested with a group trying to block a train carrying fracked oil from North Dakota; and 350.org founder Bill McKibben.
McKibben said the threat of climate change was rather obscure a few years ago, but “there’s nothing abstract about it now.” Although it may be too late to reverse the damage, he said, “we can stop an awful lot of this insanity.”
Instead of a model based on charismatic leaders and big organizations, McKibben called for “an inter-connected resistance that really works.” Yesterday’s action was “exactly the kind of action that makes a change,” he said, a good example of the “action, spirit, and creativity” the movement needs.
“No one’s going to put tar sands oil through New England,” McKibben insisted, due to active resistance from people in Maine and Vermont. I don’t know whether his omission of New Hampshire is a reflection on the health of the state’s environmental movement, but it will at least prod me to learn a bit more about the pipeline corridor from its Shelburne pump station near the Maine line to the Lancaster pump station on the Vermont side.
Pipeline safety is overseen by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the US Department of Transportation, and also by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. According to its web page,
“The federal government establishes minimum pipeline safety standards under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 49 "Transportation", Parts 190 – 199. The Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), within the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), has overall regulatory responsibility for hazardous liquid and gas pipelines under its jurisdiction in the United States.
“OPS is headquartered in Washington, DC, and supported through five regional offices located in Trenton, NJ; Atlanta, GA; Kansas City, MO; Houston, TX; and Denver, CO. OPS regional directors, pipeline inspectors/investigators, and community assistance and technical services (CATS) managers operate from each of the five OPS regional offices.
“CATS managers are available to assist the public and state or local officials with inquiries concerning pipeline safety-related issues.
“OPS inspects and enforces the pipeline safety regulations for interstate gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators in New Hampshire. OPS also inspects and enforces the pipeline safety regulations for intrastate hazardous liquid pipeline operators in New Hampshire.”
New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission shares responsibility for safety enforcement. Whether the PUC would have to approve a proposal to reverse the pipeline flow and use it to carry tar sands oil instead of crude is not known to me.
Dangers of pipeline spills may be a secondary concern to the planetary impact of extracting and burning tar sands oil, but the dangers are real and serve to localize an issue that might otherwise seem far away.
350 New Hampshire activists will rally at Portsmouth’s Market Square on Saturday, August 10, from 10 am to 1 pm. Members of 350 Maine are planning to join a demonstration next week at Brayton Point, in Somerset MA, site of New England’s largest coal-fired power plant.