South Portland council OKs tar sands moratorium, seeks committee members

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SOUTH PORTLAND — They may not be ready to assume “rock star” status, but city councilors are ready to prohibit the movement of tar sands oil through the city.

By a 6-1 vote Monday night, councilors enacted a 180-day moratorium “on development proposals involving the loading of oil sands/tar sands products onto marine tank vessels docking in South Portland.”

With the moratorium will come formation of a committee that will draft an ordinance to permanently ban unrefined tar or oil sands in the city.

By Wednesday morning, a call for committee applications was online. Councilors are seeking three land use professionals, preferably city residents, to explore “the development of ordinance language to address development proposals involving oil sands/tar sands products.” Applications are due by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 8, 2014.

As noted by former School Board member Jeff Selser at a Dec. 11 council workshop, the city has limited legal means to use because state and federal regulations govern the 236 miles of Portland Pipe Line Corp. pipe lines between the city and Montreal.

Councilors nonetheless received celebrity treatment Monday during a nearly two-hour public comment period.

“Tonight I come to support you as my new rock stars,” resident P.J. Cragin said.

Her view was not shared by Councilor Michael Pock, the sole opponent of the moratorium, who has also opposed tar sands oil coming to the city.

“It is one-sided and against the oil companies,” Pock said of the moratorium.

Chris Gillies of Portland Pipe Line Corp. was the only company executive to speak at Monday’s meeting, but company attorney Jim Merrill on Tuesday summarized his client’s displeasure with the council decision and moratorium.

“Portland Pipe Line is disappointed in the Council’s rush to judgment concerning the moratorium,” Merrill said in an email. “The company has highlighted its deep concerns over the lack of an objective fact-based discussion regarding the issues surrounding the moratorium, the lack of community involvement in the drafting of the moratorium, and the legal implications of its passage.”

The moratorium also faces a potential legal challenge from the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute. The lobbying organization also funded most of the successful effort to defeat the Waterfront Protection Ordinance with cash and in-kind contributions.

A Dec. 3 letter from Harry Ng, API’s vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary suggests the city could face a federal lawsuit, on grounds the moratorium violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The potential lawsuit was not discussed by councilors during their final deliberations on the moratorium first introduced in a Nov. 6 workshop, the day after the Waterfront Protection Ordinance was defeated by a 4,453 to 4,261 vote.

The moratorium is retroactive to Nov. 6, extends to May 5, and can be extended another 180 days by another council vote.

City Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett suggested Monday an ordinance should be ready for first reading by early April, and that Planning Board and City Council workshops should be held before anything is introduced.

Councilor Tom Blake, who supported the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, said he is prepared to extend the moratorium.

“I’m OK with that as long as we are moving forward,” Blake said. “This particular language is going to have to pass a lot of tests. If it takes us seven months to make sure we have the exact right language, than we need to do that.”

Monday’s meeting attracted an overflow crowd to council chambers; people without seats were moved to the City Hall basement to watch proceedings on TV. Councilors also rearranged their agenda to finish other business before the moratorium was discussed.

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly for passage of the moratorium and exclusion of the oil industry from the committee that will draft the permanent ordinance.

“Clearly, the people do not want tar sands here,” Kaler Elementary School teacher Peter Herrick said.

The prospect of importing tar sands oil from fields in Alberta first emerged in 2009, when Portland Pipe Line applied for state and local permits needed for emissions, and construction of structures required to burn off additives before the oil can be shipped.

The Planning Board permit to build two, 70-foot vapor combustion units on a company pier near Bug Light Park expired. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection extended the emissions permit through Feb. 25, 2014, but Portland Pipe Line surrendered the permit in October.

The potential hazards of tar sands oil and Portland Pipe Line’s desire to import the oil were previously discussed at one of the longest and largest City Council workshops ever, held last March in the gym at the Community Center.

In June, a petition introducing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which would have amended Chapter 27 of the city codes (as does the enacted moratorium) was filed with almost 3,800 signatures, including Blake’s.

The proposed ordinance omitted the words “tar sands” and “oil sands” by design. Supporters, including its author, attorney Natalie West, said it was the only alternative available to block any Portland Pipe Line plans to reverse pipe line flow, especially because the Planning Board had already approved a permit.

Opponents, including seven companies operating oil-related businesses on the waterfront, said the ordinance was too broad and could cost $252 million in wages and 5,600 jobs by shutting down all oil-related industry within 10 years.

As the referendum approached, Councilor Linda Cohen suggested a moratorium as a way to cool the rhetoric and consider how and if tar sands might fit into the city’s future.

The moratorium was presented less than 24 hours after the polls closed on Nov. 5, and takes a narrower scope than the failed ordinance, even though councilors tweaked it to include stronger definitions of oil sands and tar sands, and a need to protect public health and safety.

Merrill said the moratorium will still cause economic harm to a company that has supported the city and its residents.

“For decades, Portland Pipe Line has been focused on providing exceptional service while creating good jobs for local families and support for the local economy,” he said. “Its commitment to continue serving the community and region as an outstanding pipeline operator and corporate citizen will remain strong, while it considers its options in this matter.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.