Could Canadian Tar Sands Oil Be a Threat to Maine?

Posted on May 20, 2012

As the “eyes and ears” of Casco Bay, we are ever alert to emerging issues. The controversy over extracting tar sands oil in western Canada has taken on local significance as word spreads that Portland Harbor could become a transfer station for oil from Alberta. Friends of Casco Bay is keeping a close eye on this issue to ensure our waters are protected.

Oil Spill Preparedness

The deposits mined for tar sands oil are a mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen, a category of heavy, viscous oils that includes asphalt. Environmental advocates say tar sands oils are corrosive and toxic.

A spill of tar sands oil could have serious consequences here. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration says that spills of heavy oils make shoreline cleanup more difficult because of

  • heavy contamination of intertidal areas
  • severe impacts to waterfowl and fur-bearing mammals from coating and ingestion
  • long-term contamination of sediments

Should tar sands oil be shipped through Portland Harbor, we will insist that local responders get any necessary specialized equipment and expertise to clean up an oil with such complex (and proprietary) components, some of which may float and others that could sink to the ocean floor.


Threats to our Native Species

Could a tanker picking up tar sands oil in our port leave behind diseases or predators that could destroy our commercial fisheries? In order for a ship to take on cargo, it must empty seawater from ballast tanks that maintain the vessel’s stability. Ballast water from other parts of the world’s oceans may contain sea creatures or diseases that could thrive in a new environment, and kill or crowd out native species.

While the issue of tar sands oil is still far off on the horizon, Friends of Casco Bay is paying attention to be sure that:

• Measures are in place to prevent tar sands oil from spilling into Casco Bay or its tributaries

• Our oil spill responders have the specialized equipment and training needed to deal with the unique characteristics of tar sands oil, should a spill happen

• Regulations and best practices are established well in advance to keep invasive species from being discharged into Casco Bay as ships empty their ballast tanks while taking on oil

Current regulations require a ship to exchange ballast water far offshore to reduce the chances of invasive species surviving in our waters. The theory is that deep-water species that the ship may pick up during the ballast water exchange in our offshore waters are less likely to thrive in our coastal waters than those adapted to other coastal habitats.

What other measures can reduce the risk of invasive species colonizing Maine waters? Some techniques that could decrease the likelihood of invaders surviving include screening through fiber-mesh filters, ultraviolet disinfection, or electrolysis to produce chemical disinfectants like those used in swimming pools. We would pursue these options with the oil industry here.

The Broader Issue: Impact on Climate Change

Opponents of tar sands oil extraction say that it will have a devastating impact on climate change. Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has stated that extracting the oil from tar sands creates 2 to 4 times the greenhouse gases per barrel as conventional oil production.

Locally, Friends of Casco Bay is expanding our monitoring to better track the impacts of excess carbon dioxide and the acidification of our coastal waters. At the same time, we are working to educate the public about ocean acidification. Last year at our Wild & Scenic Film Festival, the crowd favorite was Spoil, a film that showcased the iconic wilderness and wildlife of the Northwest Pacific threatened by transporting tar sands oil westward from Alberta, Canada.