Battle Over South Portland Tar Sands Ordinance Not Over Yet

Jul 22, 2014

An oil tanker makes its way into the harbor in South Portland.
An oil tanker makes its way into the harbor in South Portland.
Credit Susan Sharon

When South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert announced the 6-1 vote to approve a measure that will block the loading of raw crude, including Canadian tar sands oil, onto tanker ships in the southern Maine city, residents and supporters, who had filled the community center, rose to their feet and gave the City Council a standing ovation.

Environmentalists are calling passage of the ordinance historic, something that could galvanize other community activists. But the pipeline company is characterizing it as "illegal" and considering its next move.

Just prior to the council's final vote, Tom Harding, vice president of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Corporation, got up to say that he thinks the energy industry, and in particular his 70-year-old company, is being singled out by the ordinance. PPL has been in business for more than 70 years. It has a good safety record, Harding says, and a history of being generous to the community.

"I think it's a sad day when science and facts are cast aside in the name of politics and popularity to begin the methodical process of shutting down the petroleum business in South Portland," Harding said.

Supporters say the Clear Skies Ordinance will not affect current operations in the city. But it will prevent the future uploading of Canadian and other crude in Portland Harbor to tanker ships for distribution. And that effectively restricts the way the company can can use its 236-mile-long pipeline between Maine and Montreal.  PPL had expressed interest in using it to pump tar sands from Canada to Maine for export on the world market.

Company attorney Matt Manahan warned councilors that the ordinance is not legally defensible. "This ordinance, if passed, would clearly be preempted by federal and state law," Manahan said. "There can be no doubt about that, and it's a mistake to move forward with an illegal ordinance."

Sean Mahoney, an attorney, advocate and executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation disagrees. "This ordinance is not preempted - by state or federal law. It is fully within the authority of this great city and every other municipality in Maine to protect the health of its citizens and the quality of life in its city," Mahoney said.

The South Portland Planning Board, Mahoney said, has also concluded that the ordinance is in harmony with the city's comprehensive plan. Mayor Jerry Jalbert has repeatedly said that if there are problems with the ordinance and it is too restrictive, the council can easily make revisions.

PPL and others in the energy industry may not wait to find out. They released a written statement after the vote saying they are weighing their legal, and other, options.

"We're concerned that the banning of a product or any energy infrastructure within South Portland, given that it is the energy hub for northern New England, could impact the region in untold ways in the future," says Jamie Py, of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

For example, Py says the ordinance may prevent certain energy products from being made available to Mainers and other residents of New England at a less expensive cost. Dylan Voorhees says residents of South Portland have signaled loud and clear what's more important to them, and that's keeping tar sands oil out.

"We know that Canada and the oil interests and the tar sands interests are desperate to get tar sands out of Alberta by any means necessary," Voorhees says, "and they're facing opposition all across the map."

Whatever happens with South Portland's ordinance, Voorhees says it's pretty clear that other activists in Maine and elsewhere are not going to give up.