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As President Obama weighs approval of Keystone XL sometime this year, concern over tar sands oil has spread from the Midwest to New England. Hundreds of people rallied earlier this year in Portland, Maine, against even the possibility that such crude from Alberta, which environmentalists say is the stickiest and dirtiest form of oil, would wind its way through the pristine lakes, rivers, and rugged terrain of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Five years ago, Enbridge floated a proposal to reverse pipelines that currently send imported oil into the interior of New England from the marine terminal in Portland, Maine. Instead, Enbridge would transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to tankers in Portland, bound for southern refineries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Enbridge managing director Steve Letwin said in a 2008 investor conference call, “We’re pretty excited about this opportunity,” because it was a much cheaper alternative for that company than building a new pipeline such as Keystone.
Proponents of tar sands oil vigorously dispute claims of environmental damage and say, as the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co. does, that such oil “is not more corrosive or challenging to transport.” But the endless Kalamazoo cleanup, and disputes now erupting in Arkansas as to how much damage is being done by that spill, raise inevitable questions that must be answered before anyone should contemplate reversing the pipelines through New England.