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The recent spill of Canadian heavy crude oil from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower, Ark., which forced the evacuation of 22 homes, has added fuel to the heated debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring heavy crude from the tar sands of Western Canada to Texas refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. The Arkansas spill comes only a month after the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Canadian firm Enbridge to conduct yet more cleanups on a 2010 rupture and spill of heavy tar sands crude in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Now at $1 billion, that cleanup is the most expensive for an onshore spill in US history. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that Enbridge ignored pipeline cracks for years and did not detect the rupture for more than 17 hours.

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.


The proposal was put on hold in 2009 during the recession and low crude oil prices. But last year, Enbridge announced that it wanted to reverse the the portion of the lines extending from Alberta to Montreal. That ignited fears among New England environmentalists that it would be only a matter of time that the company would request a reversal of the line from Montreal to Portland, which is controlled by the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Co. The company said in a December community message that while it has no current plan to reverse its lines for tar sands oil, “if there is a demand for doing so in the future, we will consider it.”

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. Though Keystone is foremost in the mind of the White House, the EPA and NTSB should also take the time to assess the risk of bringing tar sands oil through one of the most beautiful and environmentally sensitive parts of the United States.