Tar sands oil information

This page presents general information about tar sands oil. It is based on a display made to inform people in the Portland, Maine area about the possibility of tar sands oil being pumped to South Portland, on Casco Bay, for tanker-loading and shipment for refining and export.

What is tar sands oil?
What is so bad about tar sands oil?
So, what about the pipeline? Do they want to buid a new one?
They could stop a spill or clean it up though, right?
“They get the profit, we get the risk”
What can I do?

Stop The Pipeline poster
Poster and webpage; Marty Braun

These are the sponsors of the rally in Portland, Maine, Saturday, Jan. 26, poster above. Find more tar sands information at their websites.

Natural Resources Council of Maine

Environment Maine

350 Maine

Sierra Club Maine

Here are news stories about the march and rally:
The Portland Press Herald
The Huffington Post

For more information, search:
tar sands oil
Enbridge pipeline Maine


What is tar sands oil?

It is oil (“bitumen”) the consistency of peanut butter, found in sandy beds. The beds we are concerned with particularly are in Alberta, Canada. They are massive, about 54,000 square miles, an area larger than England. About 10% of the sands that are there can be removed affordably now and that 10% will produce 173 billion barrels of oil.

The fields are run by Enbridge Energy Partners, which is largely owned by Exxon/Mobil.

Tar sands as it comes from the groun

Tar sand as it comes from the ground


What is so bad about tar sands oil?

To get it out of the ground, any trees or plants must be stripped away, then the earth and clay dug away to get to the tar sands. The sands can then be strip mined.

About 160 square miles of forest and land have been removed so far. Toxic pools and waste are left behind. The Canadian government does require reclaiming the land. About 25 square miles have been reclaimed.

landscape before and after tar sands

Before and after tar sands

When the sands are too deep to strip mine (90% of the beds in Alberta are), the ground is heated with steam, chemicals, and water to soften the tar so it can be pumped out.

To move the tar sand to a refinery it must be diluted so it can be pumped through a pipeline. It’s thinned with toxic chemicals and lots of water, then heated, then pumped with higher pressure than regular oil needs. Because of the sand and grit in it, the “dil-bit” (diluted bitumen) is like a hot, toxic, liquid sandpaper and is very corrosive to the inside of the pipe. Because it needs to be pumped at a higher pressure than regular oil there is a greater chance that the pipeline will leak or rupture.


So, what about this pipeline?
Do they want to build a new one?

The pipeline already exists.

Enbridge calls this Alberta-South Portland tar sands pipeline plan “Trailbreaker”. It was shelved about 10 years ago because of cost. Improvement in extraction processes is now making oil from tar sands look more profitable. It just has to be moved to a shipping point that can get it to a refinery.

Map of pipeline

Our end of the pipeline is in South Portland, right next to Southern Maine Community College and Spring Point light. It has been used to pump oil to Canada for 60 years. The Portland Pipeline Co. has a pretty good record. It is owned by Exxon/Mobil.

Enbridge wants to reverse the flow of the pipeline to bring tar sands oil to South Portland, where it will be loaded on tankers to take it to refineries and then to export.

This oil is not for US use. It is just passing through.

The pipeline permit was for regular grade oil when it was built 60 years ago. The tar sand corrosion and higher pumping pressure required would put the aged pipeline at risk for leaks or rupture.

Enbridge wanted to pump west to the Pacific, but the Canadian First Nations have blocked Enbridge from crossing their land.

The Keystone XL pipeline south through the US to the Gulf has been delayed by President Obama.

Building north is not feasible.

That leaves South Portland, Maine.

The pipeline enters Maine near Bethel.
It crosses the Crooked River six times.
It parallels the Androscoggin River for several miles.
It passes right by Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water for 200,000 people in 11 communities in southern Maine.
It ends in South Portland on the edge of Casco Bay.

Pipeline opponents say the pipeline needs to be re-permitted for a different use.

Enbridge says “oil is oil” and they got their permit 60 years ago.

Because the pipeline crosses a national border the President has the final say on the permit.


They could stop a spill or clean it up though, right?

There are no manuals on responding to a tar sands spill yet. Most first responders have no training on how to deal with it. Putting out a boom or using skimmers in a water spill don’t work because the tar sinks.

Here is Response and Restoration information from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) about the increased risks of transporting tar sands oil. This includes an informative map of Canadian and US oil pipelines.

Enbridge has a poor pipeline record--720 spills (132,715 barrels of oil) over the last 10 years. (2000-2010)

Enbridge was at fault for the most expensive inland oil spill in history.
In July 2010, their 30-inch pipeline next to a creek in Marshall, Michigan, that feeds into the Kalamazoo River, split. It pumped out over 1.1 million gallons of dil-bit for 17 hours before it was discovered. The river was polluted for 30 miles down stream. Over 100 homes had to be vacated because of the toxic fumes and families’ respiratory problems. 50 homes are still vacant. The clean-up has cost nearly $1 billion. Recently, Enbridge announced that after almost 2 1/2 years, the clean-up was complete. The EPA told them it was not and to get back to work.


“They get the profit, we get the risk”

There will be some permanent jobs created in Maine, though most will be temporary jobs constructing new pumping stations to handle the increased pump pressure and heating the tar sands.

This oil is for export and will make no difference to “the price at the pump”.

Likely the only people happy with this plan will be Exxon stockholders.


All along the pipeline, and around the country, communities are examining whether to accept the tar sands risk.

The Canadian government is considering the permit to reverse the flow, but in Canada there has been strong opposition to tar sands for years, for example to the Keystone XL pipeline. The most vocal group for it are the people in Alberta who will make a fortune.

People in Texas, oil-country!, are against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Montreal is said to be opposed to tar sands.

Vermont has come out against tar sands.

The Portland City Council will be deciding whether to stop buying Portland’s city oil from if it derived from tar sands.

Enbridge says that they have no plans to try to pump tar sands to South Portland. They have, however, asked the Canadian Energy Board to let them reverse the flow of the pipeline in Canada. It seems likely that they will try to reverse the flow of the pipeline in the US.

What can I do?

Now is the time for us to say "no" to tar sands.

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