Environmental organizations are calling for a moratorium on oil tankers carrying so-called “tar sands” crude oil in U.S. waters in response to a Canadian pipeline project they claim threatens communities, fisheries and marine wildlife from Maine to Texas.

Canadian energy regulators are reviewing a proposal from TransCanada to construct a 2,800-mile-long pipeline from the oil-rich province of Alberta to refineries in eastern Canada and a marine terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick. After arriving in Saint John, crude oil could be loaded onto supertankers that would transit through the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine en route to mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast refineries.

Several of the same organizations that helped defeat TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal with U.S. regulators are now shifting their focus to the company’s Energy East project.

In a report released Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council said the project, as proposed, would create a “high-risk, waterborne pipeline” as traffic of crude oil-carrying tankers increases by an estimated 300 percent in the region. The 28-page report raises concerns about how a spill of the heavy crude oil could affect “iconic species” such as Maine lobster and endangered North Atlantic right whales as well as multibillion-dollar fisheries and tourism industries along the East Coast.

Critics contend the project also would dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the U.S., Canada and other countries need to take steps to address climate change.

“This would allow the Alberta tar sands industry to reach American refineries without laying pipe on U.S. soil, providing an alternative to the rejected Keystone XL pipeline,” reads the report. “This aquatic pipeline would bring the extraordinary and unpredictable risk of a major tar sands spill to the Atlantic Ocean. In the event of such a spill, current technology provides little to no chance of ever removing the oil.”

The report calls on the U.S. and Canada to impose a moratorium on tankers carrying tar sands oil until more research can be conducted on how to clean up the heavy, bitumen-filled crude oil. The authors also recommended that U.S. officials ask to be involved in the Canadian review process because of the potential impacts on the eastern coastline, and conduct detailed risk assessments for areas potentially affected by the tanker traffic, including the Gulf of Maine.

“This project would result in hundreds of supertankers moving annually along the East Coast … and at the moment, the impacts of the traffic along the coast are not being considered as part of the review of the project,” said Anthony Swift, Canada project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

SPILL PROTOCOLS, SAFETY RECORD

TransCanada said that even though the company operates pipelines – not oil tankers – the Canaport Energy East Marine Terminal will go beyond the safety protocols required by the International Maritime Organization at its Saint John facility.

“We are also working with Irving Oil and groups such as the Atlantic Emergency Response Team (ALERT) and the Port of Saint John who know the Bay of Fundy well and have been safely operating there for decades,” TransCanada spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said in a written statement. “We are working in collaboration with local authorities and first responders during the development of our emergency plan to ensure that the plan is adapted to local circumstances with resources placed strategically across the route to react quickly in the unlikely event of an emergency.”

Oil tankers have been transiting the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine for decades. TransCanada’s Energy East proposal, however, is caught up in the larger public policy debate over tar sands oil.

Distinct from the liquid crude pumped out of the ground in places such as Texas and Saudi Arabia, tar sands oil is extracted or mined from the oil sands of Alberta and emerges in the form of a sticky, tarry substance known as bitumen. The bitumen is typically diluted with chemicals so it can be pumped in pipelines. Bitumen then goes through an intensive processing and refining process.

TransCanada says its Energy East pipeline would carry up to 1.1 million barrels – or 46.2 million gallons – of crude oil per day, creating thousands of construction jobs and helping to displace foreign oil used in Canada.

But critics contend the Energy East pipeline presents an even larger environmental threat than the Keystone XL pipeline, which had its southern section blocked by the Obama administration after years of debate. The natural resources council report points to a National Academy of Sciences study, released this year, that concludes tar sands oil is even harder to control and clean up after spills because large quantities of the heavy substance sink to the bottom.

There have been several spills involving tar sands oil, most notably a ruptured pipeline that dumped more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010. Pipeline operator Enbridge was fined more than $170 million for the incident. Meanwhile, several communities in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan are currently struggling to deal with a 66,000-gallon oil spill that has polluted a river used for drinking water.

CONCERNS FOR LOBSTER FISHERY, HARBOR

Laura Dorle, campaign director for Environment Maine, raised concerns Tuesday about how an incident with one of the tankers carrying crude oil from Alberta could affect Maine’s nearly $500 million lobster fishery.

“Even a small amount of oil in the water can kill larval lobster,” Doyle said in a natural resources council conference call with American and Canadian reporters.

The oil sands issue is not new to Maine. Dorle noted that the South Portland City Council approved an ordinance effectively banning the export of crude oil from the city in response to concerns about tar sands crude flowing through the pipeline that extends into the city from Canada. The Portland Pipe Line Corp. is challenging the ordinance in court.

The natural resources council has launched a petition campaign urging President Obama, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, to pursue a ban on tar sands tanker traffic in U.S. waters.

In a September 2013 memorandum, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended strengthening planning and spill-response for crude from oil sands as well as additional research on how the product behaves after a spill.

Ben Sherman, spokesman for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration that deals with oil spills, said the agency declined to comment on the recommendations in the new report. But Sherman said NOAA is actively working on the concerns tied to transportation of crude from oil sands.

“Every potential scenario cannot be anticipated, but the Northeast is as well-prepared as any in the country, and NOAA is very actively involved in conducting the science behind that preparedness – including on issues involving potential transportation options for oil sands products,” Sherman said. “NOAA currently is not actively involved with the specific (Energy East) project but continues to research what are the best response approaches to all varieties of oil, including the type that would be transported through these pipelines, and continually updates its response tool kit accordingly.”

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