By the end of Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, 29 towns across Vermont had adopted nonbinding resolutions to keep oil from the Canadian tar sands region out of the Green Mountain State.
The proposition struck a chord with the Canadian government, but it's not one that's in tune with the resolutions.
One week before Vermont's fabled day of direct democracy, the Canadian consul general to New England, Pat Binns, sent a letter to 23 Vermont towns. The letter was intended to "address some misconceptions" surrounding tar sands oil for those towns that had placed the resolution on their Town Meeting Day agenda.
"The often-cited allegations that diluted bitumen from oil sands is more corrosive in pipelines and has 'high-risk properties' are false," Binns wrote. "The fact is that oil sands crude has been safely transported across North America for over 30 years."
Binns told towns -- like Hinesburg, Waitsfield and Middlebury -- that due to new technology, "greenhouse gas emissions per barrel fell by almost 26 percent between 1990 and 2010," and he pointed out that "U.S. coal emissions are nearly 40 times greater than those of the oil sands."
He also mentioned Vermont's heavy reliance on Canadian energy. Roughly one-third of the electricity Vermont consumes is derived from Hydro-Quebec, and the Canadian-based Gaz MÃ©tro owns Green Mountain Power, which provides electricity to more than 70 percent of Vermont. The Canadian company also controls the only natural gas company in the state: Vermont Gas Systems.
"I would ... like to highlight the depth of our energy interdependence," Binns wrote to the towns. "Canada sells Vermont petroleum, electricity, coal and natural gas valued at over $800 million annually."
Andy Simon, who spearheaded the resolution for the climate change group 350 Vermont, refuted Binns' claim that tar sands oil has a record of safe transportation in North America, pointing to the more-than 800,000-gallon spill in a Kalamazoo River tributary. The cost of that tar sands oil spill surpassed $800 million. More than two years after the incident, federal officials were still ordering further cleanup of the Michigan site.
Simon said he's not surprised that the Canadian government is paying such close attention to this and other tar sands-related developments in Vermont, considering the large amount of money at stake.
"The underlying fact for Alberta, Canada and the oil companies is that they stand to make tremendous profits off of this oil," Simon said. "One of the reasons they are paying so much attention to little Vermont is because it poses a threat of getting their oil to deep water for export."
Aaron Annable, Canadian consul to New England, told VTDigger on Wednesday, "The letter pretty much sums up our concerns with what is going on in Vermont.
"Part of our mandate is to promote and defend Canada's interests in New England, and that's our interest in this issue," he said.
In November, Enbridge Oil applied to the Canadian National Energy Board to reverse the flow of oil along a stretch of its pipeline between Ontario and Montreal.
The company, which the U.S. government holds responsible for the Michigan spill, wants to pump oil from Alberta tar sands to Montreal refineries.
The Portland-Montreal pipeline connects Montreal refineries to Portland, Maine, for export, and the line cuts through 10 towns in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
The Portland Pipeline Corp. owns that line, and last month, the company's CEO, Larry Wilson, told Vermont lawmakers that while his company presently has no contracts to pump tar sands oil, he is "aggressively" seeking out such opportunities.
He also told lawmakers that he opposes any added regulations on the line, including Vermont House and Senate bills that would require Act 250 review for any changes to a pipeline, aside from those that are "solely for the purpose of repair." Act 250 is the state's governing land-use law, which regulates large-scale commercial developments.
A coalition of environmental groups, however, says that a decision to pipe tar sands oil through Vermont would already trigger state review under current law. The group has asked the Act 250 Commission in the northeast region of Vermont for a jurisdictional opinion to verify whether the state's governing land-use law has authority over such a change.
Last week, one day after Binns dated his letter, officials from Alberta met with legislators in Montpelier to talk about the region's energy interests.
As this development has unfolded, the climate change group 350 Vermont led a statewide effort encouraging towns on Town Meeting Day to adopt resolutions to oppose the presence of tar sands oil in the state.
The resolutions and the industry response
Of the 23 towns that placed a tar sands resolution on their Town Meeting Day agendas, 22 passed some version of the item.
The town of Fairfield decided neither to pass it nor to vote it down, Simon said. The Grand Isle Selectboard passed a resolution before Town Meeting and did not place the item on their agenda. And six towns -- Bennington, Starksboro, East Montpelier, Worcester, Randolph and Montgomery -- moved a resolution from the floor and passed it, bringing the total number of towns that passed a resolution to 29.
Not one of the 10 towns that the Portland-Montreal Pipeline runs through entertained the resolution, however.
The resolutions ranged in shape and size, from 350 Vermont's template to the concise resolution of "Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free," which was adopted by the mountain town of Ripton -- home to Bill McKibben, climate change activist and one of the nation's leading opponents to the development of tar sands oil.
All of the resolutions, Simon said, indicate that the majority of residents in these towns are opposed to the development of tar sands oil and its presence in Vermont.
"There's a thicket of questions around the jurisdiction of the pipeline," Simon said. "This manages to cut through that and say that all of these different authorities -- the state and federal governments -- derive their power from the will of the people, and this is a means of expressing the will of the people."
Joe Choquette, a Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, said that taking a firm stance against the pipeline could create a more volatile situation.
"The oil is going to get to market somehow," he said. "You might as well use the safest method possible, which is to use pipelines, rather than trucks or trains."
Matt Cota, who directs the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, sat through a debate on the resolution in his hometown of Plainfield, where it passed.
"It's clear that the tar sands resolution is heavy on political theater and light on common sense," he said.
Cota took particular issue with a line in 350 Vermont's resolution, which called on towns to only purchase fuel from vendors that could show where their fuel came from, and for the town to buy fuel from vendors that don't sell oil from the tar sands region.
"That's absurd," Cota said. "It's like asking the owner of the corner store to verify what cow the milk in his cooler came from."