SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Supporters of a proposed South Portland ordinance that is intended to block transportation of tar sands oil, also called oil sands, through the city lauded Tuesday night’s approval of the measure by the city’s planning board.
The planners’ 6-1 endorsement of the ordinance marks another incremental step toward final approval and comes sandwiched between two votes by the city council on the issue.
The council voted by a similar 6-1 tally last week to give the Clear Skies Ordinance initial approval, and must vote again on July 21 to give it final passage.
The ordinance would ban the bulk loading of crude oil — including the controversial, thicker bituminous oil — onto tanker vessels in the city’s port.
Supporters, many of whom have organized under the group Protect South Portland, argue the ordinance would not infringe on any activity historically conducted in the city, and would serve to prevent movement of the controversial oil sands bitumen from Canada through Maine.
“South Portland citizens want a healthy, diverse, prosperous community for themselves and their children,” said Protect South Portland spokeswoman Mary Jane Ferrier in a statement issued late Tuesday night. “A new heavy industrial use to load crude oil — especially tar sands — onto tankers is not consistent with that vision.”
Opponents, rallying under a group calling itself the Working Waterfront Coalition, have countered that restricting any kind of handling of crude oil puts South Portland port businesses at a severe disadvantage as they try to react to emerging and fluctuating markets.
Foes of the ordinance have also disagreed with the premise that tar sands oil poses any greater public safety threat than other, less controversial forms of crude oil.
“[R]ather than pursuing a factual risk-based analysis of concerns expressed by citizens, the city quickly moved to the conclusion that the solution was an ordinance prohibiting a single product … for which no proposed project currently exists,” wrote Burt Russell, a vice president for South Portland terminal-operator Sprague Energy, in a recent letter to Linda Cohen, a city councilor and South Portland and Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce president.
South Portland has become ground zero in Maine for the debate over 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 — lost in a close citywide vote last November. Since then, a city committee has drafted an alternative ordinance intended to essentially achieve the same goal, but by a different means.
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 argued that the oil being harvested from the sands of Alberta is toxic, corrosive and three times more likely to wear down aging pipelines and leak than the more traditional crude.