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This little-known pipeline could become the Keystone XL of New England

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In a picnic-like atmosphere, some 200 Maine residents gathered at Sebago Lake state park two weeks ago to protest against a "tar sands pipeline" project that has not been proposed.

The New England environmental campaign is in many ways a miniature version of the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline that has seen the Harper government lobbying aggressively in Washington, and President Barack Obama indulging in a public spat with TransCanada and Congressional Republicans over the number of jobs KXL might create.

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It is, in short, a further sign of how politically fraught oil pipelines have become.

New England is another front in the battle being waged by the Harper government and Alberta against environmental groups who oppose expansion of the oil sands.

At Sebago Lake, prominent climate change activist Bill McKibben – who has organized protests against the Keystone project – urged a small gathering to be vigilant against any plan to use a pipeline that runs between Maine and Montreal to export Canadian crude.

Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PPML) currently operates a crude pipeline that brings imported oil from Portland, Me., through Vermont and New Hampshire to Montreal. It's been used for decades to feed refineries not only in Quebec but in Ontario.

But with refinery closures in Montreal and the booming North American production pushing out imports, the line with a capacity of 600,000 barrels per day is quickly becoming obsolete.

The company is owned by Imperial Oil Ltd., Suncor Energy Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell, whose refineries in Ontario and Quebec processed the imported crude. (Shell recently closed its Montreal plant.) It's not lost on activists that the three companies that own the pipeline are also major producers in the oil sands .

The pipeline operator has said publicly it is looking for new uses for the line, and hasn't ruled out a reversal plan that would ship crude from Montreal to Portland for export. A 2008 proposal by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. to export western Canadian crude by reversing pipelines through Ontario, Quebec and Maine was abandoned, though it has since been revived with only the New England portion missing.

The federal and Alberta governments have already engaged in the debate. Pat Binns, the former PEI premier who is now consul general in Boston, has travelled to Maine several times in the past year to defend the reputation of Canada's oil sands, and Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen has also visited the state.

But governors from Vermont and New Hampshire, Peter Shumlin and Maggie Hassan, have written Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that Washington imposes the same review process that has delayed Keystone XL for several years.

Sarah Lachance, a campaigner with 350 Maine, said the plan by TransCanada Corp., announced Thursday, to bring 1.1-million barrels per day of crude to eastern Canada signals the determination of oil industry to export crude through eastern North America.

"As far as I'm concerned, alarms bells went off in my head when I heard about it," she said in an interview. "It has a lot of relevance to the Portland pipeline – it will bring a lot more tar sands oil into Quebec."

Never mind that both TransCanada and Enbridge say they will be shipping mainly light oil through their pipelines, or that both companies say their shipments will be used by refiners in Quebec and New Brunswick or exported through Quebec City and Saint John.

Ms. Lachance says the campaign will keep up the pressure, as activists persuade Maine governor Paul LePage of the need for a federal review of any reversal project. And the Harper government will be standing on guard in New England.

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Shawn McCarthy covers energy in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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