U.S. State Dept. modifies "hands-off" stance on Portland Pipe Line

December 04, 2013
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A game-changing letter has just been released that changes the regulatory landscape for the Portland Pipe Line (PPL) should it decide to reverse the current flow of crude oil so that its would flow from Montreal, Canada, across northern New England, including Coös and Essex Counties, to Portland Harbor for export.

The U.S. State Department's previous determination that the Portland Pipe Line would not be required to provide any additional information should it decide to reverse the flow of crude oil in either its 18-inch or 24-inch active pipelines from east to west to west to east has itself been reversed.

An Aug. 13 letter written by the Bureau of Energy Resources of the U.S. Department of State to Pipe Line attorney David Coburn of Washington-based Steptoe & Johnson that was recently released makes it clear that the company can no longer expect to make any changes that affect its two pipelines that cross the US/Canada border without federal scrutiny and oversight.

This letter, signed by principal deputy assistant secretary Robert Cekuta of its Bureau of Energy Resources, apparently surfaced following a request made under the federal Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).

Likely this change was made because environmentalists in the three northern New England states — New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont — have raised concerns about putting what they say is far more corrosive diluted bitumen, a.k.a. Alberta "tar sands," to flow from west to east in 60-year-old pipes that have the potential to could leak or spill sticky hard-to-clean-up crude oil into brooks, streams or rivers.

Many members of the Congressional delegations from these three states have also asked questions that reflect the concerns of their constituents.

Cekuta starts his one-page-plus letter by stating several facts: "We are writing with regard to the two oil pipelines owned and operated by the Portland Pipe Line Corporation that cross the U.S. border at points near North Troy, Vt.

"As you are aware, the President has delegated permitting authority with regard to liquid pipeline border crossing facilities to the Department of State (see, e.g. Executive Order 13337). The Portland Pipe Line Corporation pipelines are the subject of Presidential Permits issued by the Department of State on July 29, 1999, and by President (Lyndon) Johnson on January 13, 1965.

"On July 18, 2008, the Department made a determination that the reversal of the pipeline flow and the work necessary to implement that reversal, as described in your letter of July 15, 2008, may not constitute a substantial change from the scope of authorization as set forth in the Presidential Permit issued in 1999.

"It is the Department's understanding that Portland Pipe Line Corporation has no current plans to change the operation of either pipeline.

"The Department instructs the permit holder, before the Portland Pipe Line Corporation executes any plans to change the operation of either pipeline in any manner different than its current use and operation, to provide information to the Department for its review and consideration in advance.

"For clarity, such changes in operation could include, but are not limited to, a change in the direction of flow or in the type of crude oil carried by the pipelines.

"We ask that you provide such information irrespective of whether, in your assessment or consistent with existing interpretations and the Department's 2008 determination, a change in operations would involve a substantial change from the scope of authorization set forth in the applicable Presidential Permits, and irrespective of whether a change in operation would involve new construction.

"Open communication will assist the Department in carrying out its policies and satisfying its responsibilities as they relate to pipeline permitting, including with regard to energy, environmental, and safety considerations."

Portland Pipe Line CEO Larry Wilson was unavailable for comment because he is out of the office from Saturday, Nov. 30, until Tuesday, Dec. 31, according to an automatic response to an e-mail inquiry.

New Hampshire Director Jim Merrill of the Bernstein Shur Group that maintains offices in Portland, Augusta, and Manchester commented on the recently released letter on Monday afternoon.

"As PMPL has said consistently, there is no project proposed, pending or imminent," Merrill replied. "If that ever were to change, PMPL would participate fully in all appropriate local, state and federal regulatory and public processes. The referenced letter is consistent with that commitment."

PPL's pipelines traverse five towns in Coös County: Shelburne, Gorham, Randolph, Jefferson and Lancaster, with pump stations in both Shelburne and Lancaster.

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