Tar Sands Fuels Not on the Governors' & Premiers' Agenda

The Elephant Not in the Room at the New England Governors – Eastern Canadian Premiers Conference: Tar Sands Fuels and Climate Impacts

Jenny Rushlow

This Sunday marks the start of the annual New England Governors–Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG-ECP) Conference. Each year, these regional leaders join forces to discuss pressing policy issues of mutual importance to their states and provinces. While energy issues have been a regular feature of recent NEG-ECP conferences, we understand that a certain energy elephant will be conspicuously absent from the conference room this year: tar sands fuels.

Dirty tar sands fuels could soon make up 18% of our fuel mix – jeopardizing New England’s hard-won efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Dirty tar sands fuels could soon make up 18% of our fuel mix – jeopardizing New England’s hard-won efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Tar sands fuels are slated to hit the region soon, and in a big way. While our current fuel mix is virtually tar sands free, the expansion of tar sands pipelines in the region and nationally means that this dirty fuel could soon make up as much as 18% of our fuel mix by 2020. This rapid shift has huge climate consequences, given that tar sands fuels emit significantly more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels. While New England has been a national leader in pursuing policies to reduce carbon pollution, tar sands could wipe out all those hard-won efforts. A rapid 18% increase in tar sands fuels penetration would not only offset the progress the region has already made in reducing emissions under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but impede future efforts as well.

The environmental community has called on leaders attending the NEG-ECP conference to make tar sands fuels a central issue. Twenty-five leading environmental organizations sent the letter below to the organizers of this year’s NEG-ECP conference. There have been some encouraging signs that individual states and cities are starting to look at the issue – South Portland, Maine, for example, is considering an ordinance aimed at preventing shipping of tar sands fuels, and the New Hampshire legislature passed several bills to ensure pipeline safety in 2014, one of which Governor Hassan herself will sign at a ceremony directly after the conference. But the issue has still not been added to the agenda for the NEG-ECP conference. CLF and our partners will continue to urge the New England states to make tar sands-derived fuels a priority issue, even after the delegates to this year’s conference go home.

Update: Shortly after publishing this post, CLF received this response letter from Governor Hassan in New Hampshire. Governor Hassan notably commits to raise the issue of tar sands with delegates of the NEG-ECP conference in the coming year and notes that states in the region are working together to develop the tools necessary to track the carbon intensity of petroleum fuels entering the region. We commend Governor Hassan for these important steps.


Twenty-five national, regional, and state environmental groups signed the following letter, which was provided to each of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers. Read the full letter with all signatories.

June 13, 2014

The Honorable Maggie Hassan
Governor of New Hampshire
2014 Chair of New England Governors-Eastern Canadian Premiers Conference
State House
107 North Main Street
Concord, NH 03301

Dear Governor Hassan,

We write with respect to the upcoming New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG-ECP) Conference scheduled for July 13-15 this year in New Hampshire. We ask the Conference to confront growing public concern about the encroachment of tar sands into Eastern Canada and New England by pipeline, rail, barge, and as a refined fuel, and convene working committees to evaluate the threats posed by tar sands spills and evaluate standards for fuel carbon intensity in the region.

As you are likely aware, pipeline proposals in both the U.S. and Canada have focused significant public attention on the risks of transporting tar sands diluted bitumen through pipelines. Simultaneously, new research suggests that the annual influx of tar sands-derived fuels into the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region could have a substantial climate impact that would negate the carbon pollution reductions the U.S. Northeast region has sought under its landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Climate policies in Canada such as Quebec’s greenhouse gas cap and trade system could be undermined.

Together, the transport of tar sands diluted bitumen via pipeline and the consumption of tar sands as a refined fuel is a grave risk to the region. We believe the NGA-ECP Conference should provide state and provincial decision-makers with an opportunity to understand these risks and identify policy solutions to address these pressing issues.

Pipeline proposals to carry tar sands diluted bitumen
Public concern over the transport of diluted bitumen has grown considerably in the past several years. Many of the concerns have focused on the potential impact of a spill to waterways given that diluted bitumen has different chemical properties than conventional oil.   Now that Enbridge’s Canadian Line 9 is approved to bring tar sands to Montreal, many in the U.S. believe that the Portland Pipe Line Corporation will request permission from the U.S. State Department to reverse the flow on the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL) in order to transport tar sands. In response, dozens of communities in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec have passed resolutions in opposition to a reversal. A spill of diluted bitumen from the PMPL pipeline could threaten drinking water supplies, wildlife, fishing and other water dependent industries, and public health across New England.

At the same time, TransCanada is moving ahead with its Energy East pipeline proposal which, if approved, would carry tar sands diluted bitumen and potentially impact hundreds of communities across all of Eastern Canada. Once diluted bitumen is loaded onto tankers there is also the possibility of a marine oil spill into both the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. The pipeline would also have the climate pollution impact equivalent to adding seven million new cars to Canada’s roads.

An influx of tar sands into the region’s refined fuel mix
A new analysis indicates that by 2020, as much as 18 percent of the U.S. northeast region’s fuel supply could be derived from carbon-intensive tar sands ­- up from less than 1 percent in 2012. If that occurs, it would increase greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10 million metric tons per year. This would offset the carbon pollution reductions that the region is seeking under its landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative over the next five years. Unless states take immediate action to hold the line against growing carbon emissions, and boost efforts to support the clean fuels sector, the influx of tar sands fuel would undo years of progressive climate policy.

We ask the NEG-ECP adopt a resolution to convene a committee of environmental agencies to develop standards and recommendations around fuel carbon intensity across the region.  Last year, the NEG-ECP passed Resolution 37-3, concerning transportation.  This resolution built on priorities raised at the 2012 conference to facilitate a more sustainable transportation future and identified the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while exploring opportunities to advance the green economy through investments in clean, efficient, and sustainable transportation. A resolution at the 2014 conference addressing the encroachment of high carbon intensity fuels like tar sands in our transportation fuel mix is correlated to, and logically evolves from, the transportation resolutions adopted at the 2012 and 2013 conferences.

We also ask the conference adopt a resolution to more fully investigate the threats associated with the transport and spills of diluted bitumen both by pipeline, rail, and barge.   Rapidly growing evidence shows that spills of diluted bitumen pose greater threats to water resources than conventional oils, with serious implications for emergency response and clean up. Major tar sands spills in Marshall, Michigan in 2010 and Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013 provide direct evidence of these unique challenges. Now is the time for state and provincial decision-makers to better understand the inherent risks of transporting diluted bitumen and options to confront and eliminate these risks.

We would also be pleased to have an opportunity to present our views and research on these issues and thank you for considering these recommendations.





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