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South Portland City Council enacts tar sands ban, but 'fight is not over'

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South Portland City Council enacts tar sands ban, but 'fight is not over'

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city made history July 21 when city councilors voted 6-1 for a land-use ordinance designed to prevent the bulk loading of tar sands oil on the waterfront.

The law – widely expected to be challenged by the oil industry – makes South Portland the first municipality in the country to ban tar sands. It sets a regional and national precedent for grassroots community opposition to the Canadian tar sands industry’s expansion.

“The great little city of South Portland has a Clear Skies Ordinance,” Mayor Jerry Jalbert announced after he cast the final affirmative vote just after 10:30 p.m. at the South Portland Community Center.

More than 300 people gathered for the meeting, and many exchanged hugs when the City Council adopted the ordinance, a collection of zoning amendments prohibiting "the bulk loading of crude oil onto marine vessels" in specific city zones and the construction of any buildings or equipment associated with that use.

The ordinance's definition of "crude oil" encompasses tar sands, which is the common term for diluted bitumen, a thick form of crude oil mixed with clay and sand.

Opponents of allowing tar sands into the city say transportation of the corrosive oil would increase the possibility of a leak in the aging Portland-Montreal Pipeline, and the equipment necessary to process tar sands before it is loaded on to tankers would intensify local air pollution and disrupt scenic views on the city’s waterfront.

It is a victory for environmental groups and concerned community members who have fought for a year to protect the city’s air quality from the hazards and pollutants frequently associated with tar sands transportation.

“All of us are both exhilarated and exhausted,” M.J. Ferrier of School Street, a member of local opposition group Protect South Portland, said in a press conference the morning after the council's vote.

It’s also a significant blow to the local oil industry, specifically Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Local oil officials overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance because they believe it limits their business expansion opportunities and could jeopardize waterfront jobs.

In a statement released immediately following the vote, PPLC Vice President Tom Hardison said the City Council has “no interest in allowing Portland Pipe Line Corporation and other terminals in the harbor to adapt to and meet the needs of a dynamic industry and the energy needs of the region and North America” and that PPLC will “ evaluate several options concerning this job-killing ordinance.”

The CSO prevents PPLC from reversing its existing pipeline to transport tar sands from Canada and load the product on ocean-going tankers in South Portland. The Portland-Montreal Pipeline has historically transported crude oil into Canada.

PPLC representatives have said there are no plans to reverse the flow to transport tar sands. Reversing the existing pipeline from Montreal to the city waterfront could connect tar sands reserves in Alberta, Canada, to refineries and international markets via the Atlantic coast.

PPLC had an air emissions license to reverse the pipeline and build smokestacks on the waterfront, but relinquished the permit shortly before last November, when city voters narrowly rejected a broader proposal to ban tar sands in the city. It was in response to that vote that councilors formed a draft ordinance committee to craft the CSO.

Urgency for opponents of tar sands increased again last March, when the Canadian government approved the reversal of the Line 9B pipeline that connects Alberta to Montreal. The reversal, which could begin in a few months, would bring tar sands to the front step of the American border, only 236 miles of pipeline away from exportation via South Portland.

Canadian and American environmentalists believe a reversal of the pipeline would be a crucial link for the Canadian tar sands industry. Other large-scale exportation plans include the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was recently delayed in a court case won by Nebraska landowners, and another pipeline that would cross Eastern Canada to a refinery in New Brunswick.

But only South Portland has infrastructure already in place.

Steven Guilbeault, co-founder and senior director of Montreal-based environmental group Equiterre, said in an interview Tuesday the CSO, if upheld, could jeopardize the Canadian tar sands industry’s “economic viability,” as it “rests upon the ability to export large quantities.”

He said the movement in South Portland reflects that of many Canadian and American communities who oppose the project.

“I think one of the other positive benefits of the vote (Monday) night is to show communities across North America that people in communities at the municipal level can make a difference,” Guilbeault said. “If our federal or state government, or provincial government in Canada, aren’t doing the job, then we can work together to ensure the safeguard of our environment.”

Elsewhere in New England, 42 towns in Vermont have passed non-binding resolutions opposing the pipeline reversal to carry tar sands, and three laws have passed in the New Hampshire Legislature that would make PPLC more accountable and give municipalities more protection in the case of a spill.

After considering the potential legal or political challenges the new law may face, the City Council also voted Monday to postpone ending the moratorium in place retroactively since last November "on development proposals involving the loading of oil sands/tar sands products onto marine tank vessels docking in South Portland." 

The new ordinance does not go into effect until 20 days after passage, but as some councilors and residents noted, it can be easily tweaked by a City Council vote.

"I’d hate to see something happen and the ordinance is changed or seriously tweaked, and the moratorium is no longer there to protect the wishes of the citizens of South Portland," Patricia Whyte, of Orchard Street, told councilors on Monday.

Resistance to the new law is expected, either in the form of a lawsuit or a voter referendum.

"The fight is not over,"Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said in a statement released shortly after the council vote.

But several environmental and legal groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, have pledged to back the city, and community organizers said they are ready to defend the CSO.

"We’re not going away,” Ferrier said Tuesday.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.