Tar Sands at Our Doorstep

  • Jim Murphy
  • May 28, 2015

A major battle is unfolding across New England, New York, and beyond. The fight is whether our region, with a long history of successfully reducing pollution, protecting wildlife, improving public health, and growing our economy with clean energy technologies, will become a large user and major transportation corridor of one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on Earth—tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. The outcome of this fight will have dramatic implications on wildlife and communities, from potential toxic oil spills in our lakes and rivers to substantial increases in greenhouse gas pollution fueling climate change.

Tar Sands at Our Doorstep documents the tar sands oil industry’s three pronged attack to infiltrate the region with dirty, dangerous tar sands oil. The report highlights the impacts on one of the region’s most important natural resources, Lake Champlain, an international treasure often referred as the sixth Great Lake, and other critical habitats across the state of Vermont.

The oil industry is making moves to bring tar sands to the Northeast in three ways:

  1. The Exxon-owned Portland Pipe Line Corporation has conducted a multi-year, well-funded lobbying and media effort to utilize its 64-year-old pipeline that cuts through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to transport dirty tar sands oil. This pipeline currently transports conventional oil from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Canada.
  2. Each week tens of millions of gallons of explosive crude oil roll along the western banks of Lake Champlain in thinly linked tank cars, described by many as “Pepsi cans on wheels.” This is part of an unprecedented increase in oil-by-rail transport—of almost 40-fold—that has taken place over the past decade. This increase has occurred with little oversight, and the result has been an increasing number of spills and explosions, the most tragic of which destroyed the scenic town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people. To add to this dangerous oil-by-rail onslaught in the region, an off-loading facility in Albany, New York, where all this oil is transported, has filed a permit application to be able to load dirtier tar sands oil onto barges. This would enable the heavy oil to be shipped to refineries in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere that can process the thick, dirty tar sands oil.
  3. With an increasing amount of tar sands oil reaching refineries in New Brunswick, Canada, and the Gulf Coast, more and more of this extremely carbon pollution intensive gasoline is ending up in the tanks of our cars—gasoline that is up to 37 percent more polluting than regular gasoline on a well-to-wheel basis. This is a matter of significant concern because, up until recently, the region’s gasoline was virtually free of tar sands oil and the Northeast is a substantial market that the tar sands oil industry wants to penetrate. Without action to keep tar sands oil derived fuel out of the region, the dirty fuel could be the source of up to 18 percent of the area’s transportation fuel source by 2020.

With avenues like Keystone XL stalled and likely to be denied, the industry is getting desperate to move its carbon polluting, land-locked tar sands oil to markets—particularly abroad—and make good on plans to greatly expand tar sands oil production in the coming years. This report, for the first time in one place, shows the Exxon-owned Portland Pipe Line Corporation’s true intentions to transport tar sands oil through the region.

Key Recommendations

The report makes critical recommendations to ensure that the region’s residents and policy makers are alerted to the serious risks posed by dirty tar sands oil. In particular, the report recommends:

  • Thorough Investigations on all Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Projects: The U.S. Department of State must make clear that all potential tar sands oil pipelines will undergo a strict environmental and permitting review process. Projects that do not meet set standards will be denied.
  • Safety as the Number One Priority: Federal safety measures for pipeline and oil transport need to be both strengthened and updated to prevent any future spills on approved projects. The safety of community members, the environment, and wildlife will be the number one priority when pipeline projects are proposed.
  • Educating All of Those Involved: Local governments and residents must be informed of the risks involved with transporting tar sands oil. Information should be clear and present at the beginning of any proposed project.
  • Prepared for Unfortunate Circumstances: Pipelines approved through the New England region should also provide proper resources to respond to potential spills and other emergencies the pipeline may cause.
  • Enact Policies to Reduce Our Reliance on Carbon-Based Fuels: New York and the New England region should put in place policies, such as the Clean Fuel Standard and the Carbon Pollution Tax, to reduce the reliance on dirty fossil fuels and instead lead the transition to clean, renewable sources of energy that protect wildlife and people.

Tar Sands at Our Doorstep

The Threat to the Lake Champlain Region's Waters, Wildlife, and Climate


Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates