MONTREAL - The Canadian government has moved to shield the oil industry from yet another public-relations storm related to pipelines — this time on the U.S. East Coast.
Canada's envoy to New England penned an editorial published in a Maine newspaper Monday, two days after more than 1,000 protesters in the state expressed concern Alberta oil could soon flow across the region.
Consul General Pat Binns wrote in the Portland Press Herald op-ed that the environmental record of oilsands production has improved in recent years.
"Technology is making oilsands production increasingly efficient and environmentally responsible," said Binns, who has served as premier of Prince Edward Island and as Canadian ambassador to Ireland.
He also dismissed allegations that diluted oilsands bitumen is more corrosive in pipelines than other crudes: "Pipelines have proven to be safer than all other methods of transport, including trucks, rail and ships," Binns wrote.
The response comes as projects to send oilsands crude to the West Coast and the U.S. Gulf Coast have been stalled amid controversy, and oilpatch producers are searching for new ways to transport Canadian oil to market.
The Maine protesters on Saturday opposed the prospect of Western Canadian oil eventually being pumped through an existing pipeline between Montreal and Portland, the state's largest city.
Demonstrators marched through Portland to a rally, where Mayor Michael Brennan and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree delivered speeches about the serious environmental risk of allowing heavy oil from Alberta to cross northern New England.
No plan has actually been announced for such changes to the pipeline, but opposition to such a project has grown on both sides of the border.
People in the rural Quebec community of Sutton also held a protest Saturday in an effort to keep what they call "dirty oil" out of the region.
Opponents say Alberta crude is more likely to cause spills and could put fragile ecosystems in Quebec, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont at risk.
They point to a recent proposal by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) to reverse the flow on Line 9 between southern Ontario and Montreal. That project would see Alberta crude sent to Montreal.
People who live in communities along the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line believe the Line 9 initiative could eventually open the door for a reversal on the New England pipeline, which currently pumps foreign oil from the U.S. seacoast to refineries in Montreal.
A spokesman for Enbridge said in a statement last week the company has no plan to use the pipeline between Montreal and Portland, which it does not even own.
Still, politicians in Portland have already discussed the possibility of banning the purchase of fuel from the oilsands for municipal vehicles.
"With climate change once again at the forefront of our minds, it is crucial that we work together to end our dependence upon foreign oil and keep our community free of fuels like tar sands," Brennan said in a statement Saturday.
"We need to work together to expand the market for renewable energies and eliminate the demand for tar sands and other fuels that are not only a root cause for climate change but also carry real risks of pollution and spills in our backyard."
Two New England communities recently passed resolutions to voice their concerns over any project that would send oilsands crude through the region.
The Maine town of Casco issued a news release in local newspapers to announce a Jan. 12 resolution, citing potential hazards for the environment and public health.
Last month, a city in Vermont denounced the transport of oilsands bitumen across the state. The city of Burlington warned that any leaks in the aging pipelines could pollute key water bodies, including the Connecticut River.
One industry analyst doubts a reversal to the Portland-Montreal pipeline line would be a priority because the Line 9 project still wouldn't channel enough crude to meet the combined refining capacity of Montreal and Quebec City.
Chad Friess, of UBS Investment Bank, said it could eventually be worthwhile with an increase in the capacity of the lines leading from Western Canada to Montreal.
"I view it as a lower-likelihood project," Friess said Monday in a phone interview from Calgary. "But, like I say, it's possible."
He added that eastern refineries are not equipped to handle heavier crude, so it's unlikely anything other than lighter oil would ever flow into Quebec or New England.
The Harper government, like Binns, believes anxieties about the oilsands are based on misinformation.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada's representatives in the United States have been encouraged to correct the record whenever they see errors in fact.
"We support Consul General Binns' attempts to set the record straight and promote Canada as a source of energy for our friends in the United States," Rick Roth said in an email Monday.
Binns' editorial, which refers to the decision before Portland city council, stresses the importance of maintaining a strong U.S.-Canada trade relationship. He said Canadian exports support about 29,000 jobs in Maine.
"In an increasingly competitive and globalized marketplace, it's more important than ever to work together to grow our economies, create jobs in our communities and act collectively in the responsible stewardship of our shared environment," wrote Binns, who added he presented similar information found in his editorial to Portland's council.
"Our energy markets are no exception; they are highly integrated, and that is not likely to change any time soon.
"As such, while I applaud the city's initiative to green its operations, a policy decision such as this one needs to be well-informed and take all the facts into consideration."
- with files from Associated Press