Oil spill response crew says its boat left Portland Harbor because pipeline couldn’t afford it

Oil conduit leads away from the Portland Pipe Line Corporation's terminal facility on the South Portland water front Friday Feb. 1, 2013. (Troy R. Bennett |  BDN)

Oil conduit leads away from the Portland Pipe Line Corporation’s terminal facility on the South Portland water front Friday Feb. 1, 2013. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

The Maine Responder, a pollution control vessel long stationed in Portland Harbor, was taken out of service last month in part because the company that pumps oil to Montreal couldn’t pay for its service, the ship’s crew recently told the U.S. government.

Employees of Marine Spill Response Corporation on Sept. 9 asked the Department of Labor to provide income support and job training for the six Maine Responder crew members through a program for workers whose jobs have been affected by shifts in international trade. The crew will lose their jobs, at least half of them later this month, according to the document sent to the Office of Trade Adjustment Assistance.

For decades, the Portland Montreal Pipe Line has carried oil from tanker ships north to refineries in Montreal. But in recent years the pipeline’s flow has slowed to a trickle, as Canadian oil markets have shifted to favor domestic production. It dried up completely in the first five months of this year, and three MSRC mariners say the pipeline’s decline drove their job cuts.

“The Portland Pipeline (our main customer) is shutting down production to and cannot pay dues due to their inability to continue oil trade with Canada due to environmental rezoning local politics [sic],” states the petition to the Dept. of Labor. It also cites decline in oil production in the Gulf of Mexico affecting MSRC’s bottom line.

Environmental groups are deeply opposed to importing oil drawn from the Canadian tar sands, which they claim gives off higher carbon emissions than oil derived from other extraction methods. South Portland blocked the possibility of reversing the pipeline’s flow with a clean air ordinance, but the company is suing to have the regulation lifted.

A lawyer for the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, Jim Merrill, did not answer a question about whether the company had missed payments to MSRC and instead repeated a previous statement.

“Portland Montreal Pipe Line remains open for business, which includes off-loading vessels, supporting its customers, the community, employees and annuitants,” said Merrill in an email.

Likewise, a spokeswoman for Marine Spill Response Corporation declined to answer questions about the not-for-profit’s dealings with the pipeline company.

“The petition was filed by, or on behalf, of employees, but not by MSRC as a company,” said Judith Roos. “Therefore I am unable to provide any further information.”

The petition is signed by three Maine Responder crew members — who still work for the corporation — and states that it is on behalf of the full crew. The authors could not be reached for comment.

Roos previously told the Portland Press Herald the oil-spill response ship was decommissioned because “trading patterns have shifted” creating a “lower risk profile” in the Portland Harbor. But she would not draw a direct link between that decision the pipeline’s decline.

Energy analysts say that the rise of crude oil production in western Canada means that there will be no long-term market for sending oil from Portland to Canada. And oil shipments along the pipeline have dropped more than 80 percent from this time last year, according to the most recent numbers from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. But the pipeline might be revitalized if it could reverse its flow to carry Canadian crude south to Maine.