This Small Town Victory Has Big Consequences for Tar Sands Pipelines

A five year battle against a key component of plans to pipe tar sands bitumen through Quebec and to the eastern United States quietly came to an end this summer.

In mid-July, Montreal Pipe Line Ltd., owned by Shell Oil, Suncor and Imperial Oil, withdrew its request with the Commission de protection du territoire agricole (the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land of Quebec, or CPTA) for permission to build a pumping station on 2.4 hectares of agricultural land in the eastern part of the province. The pumping station was crucial for plans to reverse the direction of the 378-kilometre-long Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL), in order to send oil from Montreal to the port city of Portland, Maine, for export.

The decision to withdraw the request has been met with cautious celebration by those who have been opposing the project since 2008.

“To our committee, this is a victory,” said Jean Binette, president of the Comité pour l'environnement de Dunham (the Dunham Committee for the Environment, or CED), in a telephone interview with DeSmog. “But we're not fooling ourselves – this is most likely simply a postponement,” until projects like Enbridge's reversal of Line 9B from Montreal to Sarnia or TransCanada's Energy East pipeline comes though, he said.

The plan to reverse the PMPL, which has a capacity of 600,000 barrels per day, to send oil south was originally in conjunction with Enbridge Oil Inc.'s expansive Trailbreaker pipeline project, that would have sent tar sands bitumen from Alberta to Portland, for eventual refinement and export. While that plan was initially put on hold in 2009 and cancelled completely in 2012, Montreal Pipe Line Ltd. had held steady to its pipeline reversal plan up until this summer.

But with Trailbreaker off the table (or renamed to make residents think it was), Enbridge's planned reversal of Line 9B a ways off, and TransCanada's Energy East plan still seeking approval from the Quebec government, there was no reason for the company to continue with the application.

According to the company, the decision to withdraw the request was a purely financial one. Montreal Pipe Line, Ltd. (which, together with Portland Pipe Line Corporation, makes up Portland Montreal Pipe Line, Ltd.) had maintained an option on the parcel of land where they planned to build the pumping station. That option was up for renewal, and it no longer made financial sense to maintain the option, so the company allowed it to lapse, said spokesperson Denis Boucher.

Without ownership of the land, a request for rezoning from agricultural to industrial became moot. The campaign against the pumping station had nothing to do with it, said Boucher. “The decision was based on our company, on our needs, and not having an active project. We decided not to move forward with the project,” he told DeSmog.

The link between financial concerns and opposition may not be so distinct, though.

“It's an economic decision because it's costing them too much” to not be pumping oil, said Cameron Fenton, director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC) and a former member of Climate Justice Montreal. During his time in Montreal, he helped organize solidarity actions with the residents of Dunham, and continues to organize against the tar sands and pipeline expansions. “The longer you stall them, the more it costs them.”

And the pumping station project has been stalled for over five years.

If you had asked at the beginning, though, you would have never expected this outcome.

In 2009, it seemed like the battle to keep the pumping station off of undeveloped agricultural land in the heart of Quebec farming territory was over before it had really began. Following consultations in 2008, the CPTA released a 2009 report approving the change in the use of the land, allowing for the pumping station to be built. There was also little popular support in 2008 for the newly formed CED (Dunham Committee for the Environment), said Binette.

People didn't think it was a big issue – the pipeline was underground, what trouble could it cause? –  explained Binette.

But for a few, the worries about tar sands oil coming through a pipeline built in 1950 was too big a risk. Dunham resident Stéphane Durand filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Tribunal of Quebec, alleging the CPTA had not done its due diligence in reviewing the project, and won. He also won an appeal by the company filed in the Court of Quebec.

Montreal Pipe Line was forced to resubmit their application to the CPTA in 2011. By then, it wasn't clear when oil would be coming from west to east. Two years later, despite growing pressure to move tar sands oil east, the pumping station is now off the table.

An integral part of keeping the fight going that long, said Binette, was the population of Dunham eventually coming around to their cause. Residents saw the 2010 Enbridge Line 6B leak that spilled over 830,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen into Michigan's Kalamazoo river, said Binette. The similarities between Kalamazoo and the eventual pipeline reversal in Dunham – both pipelines were built around 1950, and the Montreal Pipe Line would also carry the more abrasive (and more difficult to clean up) tar sands bitumen – made them realize this kind of accident could happen close to home.

South of the border, where the Kalamazoo spill has echoed even more strongly, organizers are expressing the same reserve as Binette.

“While the pulling of the plug for the building of the pumping station was welcome news to our ears, we are staying the course. Our campaign continues,” wrote 350 Maine's Sarah Lachance in an email to DeSmog. “We are well aware of the industry's determination to bring this poison to market and they are well aware of our determination to stop them.”

Despite the possibly fleeting nature of this win, the CYCC's Fenton said it is significant because it represents the first victory in the recent wave of protests against pipeline development and the expansion of the tar sands. The fight against the pumping station – and the pipeline reversal by extension – predates the battle against the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and now Energy East. It shows that victories are possible, he said.

But, it could be a bumpy road ahead. With the Energy East and Line 9 reversal still on its way, Binette said that eventually Montreal could see 1.3 million barrels of oil come to the city per day. And with TransCanada talking about sending their oil to St. John, New Brunswick for refining, he said there's no doubt that eventually there could be enough oil coming through to re-invigorate the PMPL reversal and bring a new pumping station proposal.

“It buys us some time, but we're not going to ignore what's happening – we're following it closely,”  he said.

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and editor with Media He lives in Montreal.

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