Susan Sharon

At issue are court documents from a 1992 tax dispute between the town of Gorham, New Hampshire and the pipeline company, which was seeking an abatement of taxes levied by the town. In the proceedings, the town's appraiser suggested basing the fair market value of the pipeline on a 90-year life span, and the company itself argued that a 60-year lifespan was more appropriate. 

Jim Murphy, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, says that admission is significant, given that the pipeline is now 64 years old.

"It's significant because, as we've seen with tragic spills in both Arkansas and Kalamazoo, tar sands is very dangerous stuff when it spills and it tends to be extremely hard to clean up," Murphy says. "If the pipeline is already past its retirement date you don't want to be putting a very dangerous substance on a pipeline that should be offline."

The Portland Pipe Line Corporation has expressed interest in someday using its 236-mile-long pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to its headquarters in South Portland for export on the world market. But the company's president has repeatedly said there are no current plans to do so, even though the American Petroleum Institute recently took out several newspaper ads in southern Maine promoting "safe, reliable oil from Canada." 

Emily Figdor of the group Environment Maine says the latest findings should change the discussion. "In fact, this is a smoking gun and this should be the end of any debate about whether this pipeline can ever carry tar sands," she says.

Court records show that not only did the company suggest a 60-year lifespan was appropriate, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission prepared what's known as a Depreciation Analysis of the Portland Pipe Line Corporation and used an average expected lifespan for the pipeline of 56 years, based, in part, on "the probable physical life of Portland's assets."

A spokesman for the pipeline company declined to talk on tape, but in a written statement Jim Merrill called the National Wildlife Federation's assertion that the pipeline's life span is 60 years and past retirement "false" and "grossly misleading." 

Merrill writes that the environmental group has taken "technical property tax appraisal terms dramatically out of context, all in a ploy to scare the public. " He goes on to say that the 60-year reference is "to the economic life of the pipeline and not the physical life..." 
Attorney Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation says Merrill's statement is inconsistent with what the documents show.

"For one, the documents themselves refer to the physical, economic and functional use of the pipeline. So, that certainly implies more than just a technical value for depreciation purposes," he says. "And also, there's a lot of other evidence out there that older pipelines are subject to failure."

For example, Murphy says the Exxon-Mobile pipeline that ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas last year, spilling more than 5,000 barrels of heavy crude, was about the same age as the Portland-Montreal pipeline. And he says the State Department's recent study on the Keystone XL pipeline found that pipelines installed prior to 1970 could be more vulnerable to corrosion. 

But a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which oversees pipeline safety points, out that U.S. safety regulations do not set a lifespan limit on the use of any pipeline. Gordon Delcambre declined to talk on tape, but in an email he said, "As long as a pipeline is properly maintained and meets all of the safety regulations requirements it can continue in use."

That maintenance can include replacing or repairing pipelines.