AUGUSTA – A legislative committee voted unanimously Monday to reject a proposed two-year moratorium on any transportation of tar sands oil in Maine, deciding instead to have the Department of Environmental Protection further study environmental, safety and health issues related to the fuel.

The moratorium was proposed in L.D. 1362, submitted by independent Rep. Benjamin Chipman of Portland.

At a work session held Monday by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Chipman amended his bill to remove the provision for temporarily prohibiting the transportation of tar sands oil, and to specify that studies the DEP is said to be doing would be expanded to address unrefined bituminous tar sands oil, its transportation and known environmental issues.

The study should include projected costs of a worst-case spill, he said.

Under the amended measure, which now faces votes in the House and Senate, the DEP must submit the results of its comprehensive study by Jan. 31.

The committee’s Senate chair, James Boyle D-Gorham, said he wanted to be certain that the DEP’s work would be an intensely focused study on tar sands transportation, would incorporate the most recent federal information and scientific research, and would yield specific information on how, or if, a spill could be cleaned up — and at what cost.

Tar sands, also called oil sands, are a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen — a heavy, black viscous oil, according to the 2012 Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which can be refined into oil.

Maine’s legislative debate over tar sands was spurred by months of public anxiety over the prospect of reversing the flow of the Portland-Montreal pipeline to carry tar sands from western Canada to Portland, Chipman said.

The concern about tar sands in Maine is so fierce, he said, that he has been inundated by constituents and decided that legislative action was necessary to provide answers.

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, said her constituents are anxious about the environmental havoc that could occur if a spill occurred along Sebago Lake. “We need something to express that concern,” she said.

Petroleum industry representatives say that transportation of tar sands oil by pipeline poses no public safety hazard.

“Liquids pipelines have long been the safest method of transporting crude oil and refined petroleum products,” Andy Black, president and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipelines, told the committee in written testimony on the moratorium bill.

“Every year liquid pipeline operators spend over $1 billion on the safety of their pipelines, evaluating, inspecting and maintaining their pipeline networks. The reliability record of the liquids pipeline sector is greater than 99.999 percent, far safer than rail, truck and barge transportation,” he said.

Monday’s unanimous vote by the committee showed a recognition that bans on tar sands-derived petroleum products are unworkable, potentially reducing the availability of oil products in Maine and increasing energy costs, said John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, in a news release.

“Decades of industry experience and independent evaluations … show that oil-sands derived crude is similar in characteristics to traditionally extracted heavy crude when it comes to transportation,” Quinn said. “Industry and the regulatory community should continue to work collaboratively to reduce incident rates and prepare adequate responses in the unlikely event that a spill occurs.”

The committee rejected the moratorium principally because of the possibility that it would violate federal interstate commerce law and likely would not withstand a court challenge, lawmakers said.

The moratorium’s defeat was a victory for representatives of the petroleum, pipeline and transportation industries. The amended measure allows for a pipeline reversal to move ahead, despite Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s statements that no such plan has been proposed.

Tim Walton, director of external affairs for The Cianbro Cos. of Pittsfield, said last week that no plan or project has been announced. “It would appear that this (moratorium) proposal is in essence a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

But many environmental groups, Maine residents and citizen activists believe that Portland Pipe Line will go ahead with a flow reversal. Several towns have passed measures banning transportation of tar sands oil across their borders.

Even on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, not all members were wholly satisfied with the decision to limit action on tar sands oil to further study. Several said additional action might be needed in the future to safeguard the environment and the public.

“I just think it’s important to think about what’s at stake,” said Rep. Paul McGowan, D-York. He pointed to the nation’s most expensive pipeline spill, a tar sands leak in 2010 on the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan. It has cost $1 billion so far to clean up, and 32 miles of the river are permanently polluted, he said.

“Permanently polluted,” McGowan repeated, echoing witnesses who testified at a public hearing last week on the proposed moratorium. “It cannot be cleaned up.”

In late April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged the State Department to hold tar sands oil to a higher standard of safety than other forms of crude oil.

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