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Act 250 Permit Required For Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

A pipeline company needs a state Act 250 land use permit if it wants to ship tar sands oil through northern Vermont, a district environmental coordinator has ruled.

In an eight page decision, District 7 Environmental Coordinator Kirsten Sultan said the land use law applies because reversing the flow of the pipeline to carry the heavy crude would be a substantial change to the existing development.

Environmentalists had called for Act 250 review of the potential tar sands project. Jim Murphy, a senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, hailed the ruling.

“I think it’s a great decision for Vermont and for Vermonters, especially in light of what we’ve been learning about the differences between tar sands and conventional crude,” Murphy said. “It’s the right decision and I think it also affirms the ability of Vermonters to make sure they have a say over projects that impact them.”

The pipeline is now used to ship regular crude west from Portland, Maine to Montreal.

But Larry Wilson, the chief executive of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., told Vermont lawmakers recently he’s aggressively looking for ways to use the 63 year old pipeline. That includes reversing the flow to ship tar sands – also know as diluted bitumen – east for export from Portland.

Environmentalists are concerned, both because of the greenhouse gases released in extracting tar sands from the ground, and because of the risk of spills along the route.

A recent rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas released 80,000 gallons of tar sands oil. The District 7 ruling also takes note of a 2010 tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. 

“The tar sands oil sank to the river bottom, coating wildlife, rocks and sediment,” the ruling said. “Cleanup from this spill is incomplete, with costs at $800 million and rising. This July 2010 spill illustrates the risk associated with transport of tar sands oil, and the challenges faced when a spill occurs.”

Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation says Act 250 review will consider potential environmental impacts.

“One of the major differences between diluted bitumen and conventional crude is the heat that it’s transported at,” he said. “And certainly they can look at the impacts that heat would have on the many critical resources that the pipeline flows through like Victory Bog, and the Connecticut River and many streams.” 

Federal law says states can’t regulate pipeline safety. But officials said Vermont still has the authority to regulate land use.

Ron Shems is chairman of the Natural Resources Board, which administers the Act 250 land use law statewide.

“The federal law allows the state to make land use decisions and environmental decisions. And as the facts are being presented and permitting decisions and particular conditions on the permit are being weighed, it’s at that point where we would make the decision about whether preemption would apply,” he said. “It doesn’t block the process at all.”

The jurisdictional opinion can be appealed to the state environmental court. There’s no word yet from the Portland Pipe Line Corporation on whether it will challenge the ruling.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is continuing to review a bill that would require an Act 250 permit for changes in oil pipelines. Jim Murphy of National Wildlife said the legislation may not be needed now that the district coordinator has ruled that the land use law applies in this case.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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