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All Senate Committee members support oil spill preparedness bill

March 12, 2014
CONCORD — The state Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously on Thursday, March 6, to support Senate Bill 325, designed to improve in-state oil spill preparedness and response measures.

Senator Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat of Dalton, is the bill's prime sponsor. SB325 now heads to the Senate Finance Committee since it would impose a new dedicated fee, likely $200,000 a year, on the Portland Pipe Line.

The Committee's vote came just as Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) approved a project by Enbridge Energy Partners LLP (Enbridge) to bring diluted bitumen a.k.a. "dilbit" and "tar sands crude," from Alberta to Montreal. NEB's decision is expected to create a renewed interest by pipeline owners in reversing the flow of crude oil through a now-idle 60-year-old 18-inch oil pipeline that tracks Route 2 in Coös County, running from Shelburne east through Gorham, Randolph, Jefferson and Lancaster.

Conventional crude is currently pumped from the Harbor terminal in Portland, Me. to Montreal through a 49-year-old, 24-inch, 236-mile pipeline that traverses these same five New Hampshire towns.

Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company and Portland Pipe Line Company (PPLC) — both subsidiaries of Exxon-Imperial Oil, Shell Oil, and Suncor — own this pipeline as well as the idle 18-inch pipeline that runs alongside it which was filled with nitrogen during the summer of 2011.

The pipeline's right-of-way (ROW) includes more than 70 stream and wetland crossings, as well as the Connecticut and Androscoggin Rivers. Experts have testified that a spill anywhere along this route could have a devastating impact on the North Country's communities, environment, and tourist-oriented economy.

"I'm proud to sponsor SB 325, which improves NH's oil spill preparedness… on a line that is essentially along Route 2 through the towns of Lancaster, Jefferson, Randolph, Gorham and Shelburne," Woodburn testified when he introduced the bill. "I should note that this route holds special notoriety — author John Steinbeck explored this section of New Hampshire — not once but twice — in his best-selling book, 'Travels with Charley: In Search of America.'

"Steinbeck marveled at the beauty of this spot and the rugged individuals that inhabit it," Woodburn testified. "It is one of my favorite books since it explores the changing culture of America and asks the aching question: 'Why does progress so often look like destruction?'"

"And it is that false confidence in our technology that worries me and my neighbors amidst rumors that the flow may some day be reversed on this line and Alberta tar sands may be pumped in an aging pipe from Montreal to Portland, Me.

"But even without that risk, I would argue that history — recent history even — tells us that we ought to be prepared if this dated pipeline fails and sends oil flowing into our beautiful natural and cultural environment.

"Others will speak about the damage done by spills in other places," Whitefield native Woodburn said. "But this is about my place and whether we should take out a small insurance policy to ensure against the risk. Between tourism and our second and retirement home market, our economy has become almost entirely based upon our wholesome environment.

"This is a modest, reasonable bill that places a minor burden on a big company – one that generally speaking has been a good neighbor — so that we can prepare locally to deal with a crisis. "

Concerned conservation groups, including members of the hunting and hiking communities, point out that on July 25, 2010, a 41-year-old, 30-inch pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured near Marshall, Mich., releasing at least 843,000 gallons of dilbit than ran into the Kalamazoo River. An estimated 180,000 gallons of tar sands crude still remains in the river's sediment today and ongoing cleanup efforts have cost nearly $1 billion.

PPLC's 18-inch pipeline in Coös County — installed in 1950 — was included in Enbridge's 2008 "Trailbreaker" proposal along with reversal of Enbridge's Canadian Line 9, recently approved by the NEB). While the Trailbreaker proposal was dropped during the economic downturn in 2009, Enbridge once again began permit applications for the Canadian components of the project in 2011.

Since then, PPLC has experienced a declining demand for traditional crude pumped through its pipeline, making critics fear that it will revive its flow reversal project in an attempt to ensure profitability.

"The changes in hydraulics and internal pressures associated with reversing flow in a pipeline, particularly one that crosses multiple hills and valleys, can increase the risk of a spill," said Director of Conservation Carol Foss of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire explained in a recent press conference. "While any discharge of crude oil into the North Country environment would be a disaster, impacts of a dilbit spill would be particularly severe and lasting.

"Dilbit behaves quite differently from conventional heavy crude oil when spilled," she explained. "Once released from the confines of a pipe, light hydrocarbons – used to thin bitumen enough to make it flow – evaporate into the air, creating toxic fumes that jeopardize public health. The heavy bitumen can then sink in water, coating river bottoms, smothering aquatic life, and making cleanup very costly and difficult."

Company spokesman Jim Merrill thanked those who had spoken for acknowledging the outstanding safety record that the Portland Pipe Line has established since it began operations in 1941.

Nonetheless, Merrill said that the proposed bill is discriminatory because it "singles out" pipelines and not other modes of oil transport, such as trucks and trains. The pipeline "does not have a project involving the transport of tar sands," he said. If in the future it does develop a project, then it would, of course, follow the public process called by international pipelines that cross the US/Canada border, Merrill stated.

Attorney Sheridan Brown, speaking for Audubon at the hearing, pointed out that although pipeline spokesmen now claim that the Portland Pipe Line's pipes have an "endless lifespan," that is not what they have told assessors. In PPLC's 1994 appeal of Gorham's tax assessment, the company claimed that its useable life is 60 years, Brown pointed out. "In more recent years' tax appeals and FERC filings, PPLC has stated that the pipeline's useable life is 78 years," the attorney said.

SB325 seeks to assess an annual license fee upon pipeline facilities in New Hampshire. The fee would be dedicated to the state's Oil Pollution Control Fund, which supports oil spill preparedness and response activities designed to limit the impact of an oil spill along the pipeline's route. Bill co-sponsors include Senators Bob Odell, a Republican of New London, Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat of Portsmouth, David Watters, a Democrat of Dover, and John Reagan, a Republican of Deerfield, as well as Rep. Marcia Hammon (see sidebar), a Democrat of Whitefield, and Suzanne Smith, a Democrat of Hebron.

In his testimony, Dr. John McHugh of UNH's Center for Fluid Physics, who is an expert in fluid mechanics, pointed out that reversing the flow of crude oil would not be a simple matter.

First, the professor said, the Portland Pipe Line pipelines are designed to handle greater pressure at their Portland Harbor end. If the flow were to be reversed, the greatest pressure would be located somewhere else that was not designed for it.

Second, the pump stations are located closer together on the uphill side of the 236-mile route where they must pump harder and farther apart on the downhill side. If the flow were to be reversed, these pump stations would not be set up correctly to deal with a new reality.

Coös County has two oil pump stations, both adjacent to Route 2: one in Shelburne on land taken by eminent domain in 1940-1941 from this reporter's family, and the other in Lancaster. The first no-longer-in-use and fully retired 12-inch pipeline was installed to help Canada in its fight against Nazi Germany before the U. S. had entered World War II.

Descriptions of the Portland Pipe Line point out that the low point of the line is in South Portland, Me., with an elevation of only 32-feet, and the high point is in Lunenburg, Vt., with an elevation of 1,960 feet or nearly 2,000 feet.

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