SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — After too great a turnout for Monday night’s South Portland City Council meeting threatened city fire code violations and forced a delay of a vote on a new ordinance aimed at blocking transportation of so-called tar sands oil through the city, the issue will be back up for discussion Wednesday.
The council will meet Wednesday night in a venue with a larger capacity — the South Portland Community Center gymnasium at 21 Nelson Road — to try again. Wednesday night’s vote on the ordinance will be just the first; a second council vote, likely later this month, would be necessary to ultimately approve the measure.
On Monday, approximately 200 people reportedly attempted to attend the meeting in the council chambers, about double the space’s capacity.
Supporters of the ordinance, which would ban the bulk loading of crude oil — including the controversial, thicker bituminous oil — onto tanker vessels in the city’s port, blamed oil industry representatives for packing the Monday meeting with out-of-towners and forcing a delay by the council.
The group Protect South Portland described the proposed ordinance as being a “narrowly crafted” one that would effectively block the movement of so-called tar sands oil through the city without harming waterfront businesses dealing in refined petroleum products, in part because the aforementioned crude oil bulk loading is “a business activity that has never been done historically, is not currently done, and for which there are no existing plans to do.”
“[W]e’re not at all deterred and the public will be out tonight to encourage the City Council to pass this straightforward ordinance to keep toxic tar sands out of our city,” said Mary Jane Ferrier, spokeswoman for Protect South Portland, in a Wednesday statement.
But opponents of the ordinance, organized under a group called the Working Waterfront Coalition, have blasted the new rules as being an unnecessary restriction on job-creating businesses who might otherwise be able to capitalize on North America’s current oil boom.
They’ve also argued that the ordinance overreaches by blocking bulk loading of even otherwise uncontroversial crude oil onto tankers, which goes beyond banning the oil sands product and limits what Burt Russell, vice president of operations for South Portland terminal operator Sprague Energy, called a “product [which] has been safely transported, transloaded and stored on the waterfront for decades.”
“If city councilors can be bullied into believing that exporting goods by ship is not a traditional marine activity and, without any scientific input or justification, ban a perfectly legal product, then the entire working waterfront is under threat,” said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, in a recent statement. “If it’s crude today, what will it be tomorrow?”
South Portland has become ground zero in Maine for the debate over so-called tar sands oil, which environmentalists fear is being queued up in Canada for transportation through the state.
A previously proposed ordinance intended to block the bituminous oil, by restricting pier upgrades that would have been necessary to accommodate the thicker oil, was narrowly defeated at the polls last November. Since then, a city committee has drafted an alternative ordinance intended to essentially achieve the same goal, but by a different means.
That’s the ordinance to be discussed Wednesday night in the council’s 7 p.m. meeting.
In March, the Canadian government approved a plan by energy giant Enbridge to expand the capacity and reverse the flow of its North Westover-to-Montreal pipeline — a move environmentalists have called a precursor to a reversal of the 70-year-old, 236-mile-long Portland-Montreal pipeline, which currently transports crude oil from Atlantic Ocean tankers to Canadian refineries.
The oil lobbyist American Petroleum Institute has hinted it would file a lawsuit against the city of South Portland if it continued to obstruct the pipeline’s operations, arguing the export of oil is the protected purview of the federal government, not a local municipality.
Representatives of the Portland Pipe Line Corp. have long argued the company has no plans to reverse its flow and that Enbridge’s eastward path could just as easily extend from Montreal to coastal Canadian ports instead of South Portland.
As with the political lightning rod Keystone XL pipeline — proposed to transport the heavier bituminous oil from Canada through midwestern U.S. states to the Gulf of Mexico — environmentalists have protested the establishment of a tar sands pathway to international markets across Canada’s eastern provinces and northern New England.
Several Maine towns have passed resolutions declaring opposition to the transportation of oil sands bitumen across their borders, including Casco, where the pipeline passes near Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for 15 percent of all Mainers.
Environmentalists have proclaimed the toxic, corrosive oil being harvested from the sands of Alberta to be three times more likely to wear down aging pipelines and leak than the more traditional crude.