The debate over the transportation of oil intensified today in Maine and nationally as Canadian officials began their investigation into the deadly weekend train derailment and explosion in neighboring Quebec.

After months of controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Sunday’s early morning incident in Lac-Megantic thrust national attention onto the growing trend of shipping crude oil via rail from North Dakota and Canada to refineries on the eastern seaboard.

Whether the Quebec rail disaster will influence debate over the Keystone XL project — which is still under review by the U.S. State Department — was unclear today.

An Obama administration rejection of the northern portion of the Keystone project would likely increase the amount of oil shipped by rail. But it could also heighten interest in using an existing Montreal-to-Portland pipeline to carry crude from Alberta to the East Coast.

Critics of both methods of transportation cited the deadly explosion as proof of the need to revisit the nation’s energy policy and reduce reliance on oil.

“This horrific accident makes it clear that transportation of oil — whether it is ‘fracked’ oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota or tar sands oil from Alberta — is an extremely risky and dangerous practice,” said Glen Brand, director of the Maine Sierra Club. “It puts our communities at risk.”

The amount of crude shipped by rail has risen exponentially during the past several years as oil companies used new technologies to tap into sources in North Dakota, Montana and Alberta.

Opponents have managed to stymie approval of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline, which would traverse the Midwest en route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. At the same time, existing pipelines to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries cannot accommodate the growing supply of crude. As a result, tens of thousands of rail cars filled with crude oil have passed through Maine during the past year and a half en route to refineries in New Brunswick.

The 72-car Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train that derailed in Lac-Megantic — sparking an explosion that killed more than a dozen people in the tourist town — was bound for Irving’s refinery in St. John, N.B., on a route that would have taken it into Maine at Franklin County, about 10 miles from Lac-Megantic, and east through Jackman, Greenville and Benton.

A spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute said the industry trade group does not support one method of transporting oil over another. As domestic oil production continues to grow, the country will need a variety of ways to safely move crude, spokeswoman Sabrina Fang said today.

“We are for all methods of transporting oil,” Fang said.

About a dozen protesters from the group 350 Maine gathered outside of the MMA offices in Hermon today to call for more stringent inspection of Maine railways and a decrease in the amount of oil transported through the state in the wake of the derailment.

Group members held signs that opposed fracking — the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract crude from North Dakata oil fields — and the transportation of that oil through Maine.

“We feel this tragedy was avoidable and I want an independent investigation into these rail lines that carry these trains,” said Jim Freeman, a Maine 350 member who was arrested in Fairfield on June 27 for criminal trespassing after attempting to block a Pan Am Railways train carrying oil. “Just walk a couple hundred yards up a track and you’ll be shocked at the condition the railways are in.”

Read Brugger, another 350 Maine member who was arrested in Fairfield, also called for state and federal agencies to do more to inspect rail lines and take other steps to ensure oil is being safely transported through Maine. While there’s still a need to transport oil, Brugger said, methods have to be developed to make the process safer and better for the environment.

“It’s not something we see happening overnight,” Brugger said. “We need to find alternatives.”

Fadel Gheit, an energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Inc., told The Associated Press that interpreting the Quebec disaster as a boost for the Keystone project would be like “jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”

Gheit, who supports the Keystone project, said Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other pipeline proponents will need to persuade the Obama administration on the project’s merits, rather than the dangers of rail.

“If I have a choice of importing oil from Canada, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, where would I feel much better with?” he asked, calling the answer obvious.

Meanwhile, speculation persists that pipelines could one day carry crude oil from the Alberta to Maine.

Officials at Portland Pipe Line Corp. have said they have no plans to reverse the flow of a pipeline between Portland and Montreal in order to carry Canadian crude to Maine. But they acknowledge they have explored the possibility, prompting protests from Maine groups opposed to so-called “tar sands” oil.

A spokesman for Portland Pipe Line could not be reached for comment today.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239
[email protected]

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