The Universal Notebook: Reversing the pipeline reversal

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On Nov. 5, South Portland voters will be asked to approve a Waterfront Protection Ordinance designed to prevent that city from becoming an export terminal for Canadian tar sands oil.

Supporters of the ordinance – local citizens – fear that unless the measure passes, 70-foot smokestacks will be spewing toxic fumes next door to local schools and toxic tar sands oil will be stored in tank farms next door to the local old folks home.

Opponents of the measure – the oil industry and its hired guns – would have voters believe that if the WPO passes the entire waterfront economy of South Portland will tank overnight – tankers, tank cars, tank farms and all.

The public debate in South Portland can be hard to follow, not least of all because the Waterfront Protection Ordinance is not really designed to protect the waterfront, it’s designed to protect the residents of the area from the pollution that would arise from the waterfront if the Portland Pipe Line Co. starts sucking tar sands oil down from Montreal through it’s 236-mile underground straw.

Then, there’s the fact that there is no concrete tar sands proposal on the table. All of the local opposition arose because Portland Pipe Line secured an extension in 2012 of an air emissions license issued by the Maine DEP in 2009 for a Pipeline Reversal Project.

The company describes the flow reversal in a letter to the DEP as “a proposed project that would include reversing the flow of PPLC’s 18-inch pipeline to bring crude oil south from Montreal for loading into marine tank vessels at PPLC’s pier in South Portland. The project would also include installation of a vapor control system to convey vapors displaced by the marine tank vessel loading operations to new Vapor Control Units (VCUs).”

The VCUs are the smokestacks that would burn off the chemical additives used to make thick, heavy tar sands oil flow through an 18-inch pipe.

The debate is further complicated because the opponents of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance call themselves the South Portland Working Waterfront Coalition and urge voters to “Save Our Working Waterfront,” which is also what the Waterfront Protection Ordinance supported by Protect South Portland would imply it does.

The premise of the NoWPO argument is that the ordinance would completely destroy the waterfront economy. In a study called “The Economic Impact on South Portland and the Greater Portland Region of the ‘Waterfront Protection Ordinance’ Proposed in the City of South Portland, Maine,” Charles Lawton, a Portland Press Herald columnist who works for Planning Decisions, seems to have simply taken the word of the waterfront companies that paid $15,000 for the study that they would all go out of business Nov. 6 if the WPO passes.

Take my word for it, if the WPO passes, there will be thousands of new jobs, millions in new tax revenues and much cleaner air in South Portland. OK, I’m just making that up, but it’s every bit as legit as Lawton’s laugher of an economic analysis.

In a surprise move last week, Portland Pipe Line announced that it has surrendered its air emissions license as a gesture of good faith that it will not be pumping tar sands oil any time soon. The surrender amounts to an industry admission that tar sands oil is nasty stuff and local folk were right to oppose it. Opponents, of course, remain skeptical of the company’s intent.

But the Portland Pipe Line move does render the WPO debate pretty much moot and mute. Since it is always prudent to err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting the environment, and the company has reversed its Pipeline Reversal Project, it just makes good sense for the good citizens of South Portland to pass the ordinance anyway, just to be on the safe side.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.