Fight over tar sands is financially one-sided, turns ‘nasty’

Maura McDonald, a nurse practitioner and South Portland resident, speaks on Thurs., June 6, 2013, at a rally organized by the Protect South Portland against the prospect of pumping oil sand crude, also known as tar sands, from Montreal to South Portland harbor. Protect South Portland launched a citizens initiative to block any attempt by Portland Pipe Line Corp. to pump tar sands to South Portland.
Maura McDonald, a nurse practitioner and South Portland resident, speaks on Thurs., June 6, 2013, at a rally organized by the Protect South Portland against the prospect of pumping oil sand crude, also known as tar sands, from Montreal to South Portland harbor. Protect South Portland launched a citizens initiative to block any attempt by Portland Pipe Line Corp. to pump tar sands to South Portland. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 29, 2013, at 4:21 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 29, 2013, at 8:59 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The groups battling over the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which South Portland voters will face on Nov. 5, are racking up endorsements and filling their campaign chests. In the meantime, the issue has divided the community and turned “nasty,” according to one local business owner.

On Tuesday, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce became the latest entity to announce its opposition to the land use ordinance, which was created through a citizen referendum process and seeks to preemptively scuttle any attempts by a local pipeline company to transport oil sand crude, commonly referred to as tar sands, from Montreal to South Portland’s waterfront, where it would be pumped onto ships that would carry it to refineries. The 236-mile pipeline currently pumps crude oil from South Portland’s waterfront to refineries in the Montreal area. Tar sands come from western Canada, mostly in Alberta, and consist of bitumen, which is a solid or semisolid petroleum deposit, mixed with sand, water and clay. It does not contain tar.

Dana Connors, president of the state chamber, said in a statement the ordinance “will eliminate well-paying jobs, stifle economic development, and will detrimentally affect economic growth in many ways — not only in South Portland, but across the region and the state.”

Former Gov. John Baldacci and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce also recently announced their opposition to the ordinance. Baldacci claimed the ordinance is “far too broad as written” and would adversely affect other businesses in South Portland that rely on the waterfront.

Protect South Portland, the group advocating for the ordinance, has worked hard to convince people that the ordinance is not too broad as written and that it would not hinder existing companies that utilize the waterfront.

“The Waterfront Protection Ordinance will prevent the development of tar sands export facilities on the South Portland waterfront, and that is all. Other businesses can and will continue to thrive,” Dave Owen, a law professor at the University of Maine School of Law, and a South Portland resident, said in a statement. “The oil industry falsely assumes that the ordinance would close down all of the petroleum-related businesses in South Portland, which is completely unfounded.”

To be clear, the Portland Pipe Line Corp., which has operated the pipeline for the past 70 years, has not officially announced plans to reverse its flow to carry tar sands south to Maine. However, the company in 2008 did begin preliminary work on a potential reversal project before abandoning it because of economic conditions. The company’s CEO, Larry Wilson, has told the Bangor Daily News in the past that he is open to the idea if the market improves. Portland Pipe Line Corp. is a fully owned subsidiary of Montreal Pipeline Ltd., which is owned by three Canadian companies: Imperial Oil, Shell and Suncor Energy.

The ordinance would change South Portland’s land use regulations so that if the company ever did officially pursue a reversal, it would not be allowed to complete the necessary improvements to its waterfront infrastructure.

The groups working on both sides of the campaign were required to report financial figures on Friday.

Protect South Portland reported total cash contributions of roughly $40,000, mostly in the form of small donations from supporters, according to its financial disclosure forms. Its biggest single contributor is the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The Maine Energy Marketers Association, which is leading the opposition to the ordinance, reported total cash contributions of $110,000, according to its financial disclosures. In October, Gulf, Irving and Citgo gave a total of $40,000 to the campaign.

When in-kind contributions and loans are calculated into the equation, the “No” campaign has received nearly $600,000 in support, which far outpaces the pro-WPO campaign, which has roughly $42,000. The imbalance has prompted the ordinance’s local advocates to decry the influence of “out-of-state oil interests.”

Bob Johnson, co-owner of Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland’s Willard Square neighborhood, supports the passage of the ordinance, but is “saddened” by how contentious the issue has become.

As a business owner, Johnson said he understands the motivations of Portland Pipe Line Corp.

“It’s a clear business opportunity,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “Historically they have been a good business. No one is denying that, and they have an impeccable safety record. However, I personally think tar sands would not be good for Maine environmentally. I think the potential risk is far greater than the upside.”

But that debate has become lost in the back and forth over how the ordinance is worded and whether it would impact other businesses on the waterfront, he said.

An economic impact report commissioned by the Maine Energy Marketers Association suggests the city would lose 5,600 jobs and $252 million in accumulated earnings over the next decade if the ordinance passed and the city’s petroleum industries shut down as a result. Though a local and well-respected economist completed the report — Chuck Lawton of Planning Decisions Inc. — Protect South Portland called it “a phony economic analysis” in a press release.

“It’s very much a residential area mixed with industrial use,” Johnson said. “It’s a very delicate balance. There has to be a very reasoned and thoughtful debate whenever you’re talking about this stuff. This has just got nasty.”

One benefit to all the focus the issue has received is that, no matter what happens on Nov. 5, people will be better informed about the waterfront, the industries that rely on it, and the environmental risk that could come if tar sands are allowed to flow through Maine, Johnson said.

“Even if this ordinance doesn’t pass, should this come up again, I don’t think there will be any question as to what we’re talking about when discussing changing the use of the pipeline and bringing down and storing the Alberta crude,” Johnson said. “I think at the next juncture there will be much clearer debate.”

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story contained an error. The economic impact report was commissioned by the Maine Energy Marketers Association, not the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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