South Portland council casts ‘historic’ vote to block tar sands exports

The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district. Supporters hailed the vote as a historic local effort to block transport of Canadian tar sands through the city. Opponents say the measure hinders waterfront oil companies from adapting to changing energy supply trends, as proven oil reserves in the Canadian province of Alberta are now the third-largest after those in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Darren Fishell | BDN
The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district. Supporters hailed the vote as a historic local effort to block transport of Canadian tar sands through the city. Opponents say the measure hinders waterfront oil companies from adapting to changing energy supply trends, as proven oil reserves in the Canadian province of Alberta are now the third-largest after those in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Buy Photo
Posted July 21, 2014, at 11:55 p.m.
Last modified July 22, 2014, at 11:12 a.m.

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The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district.
Darren Fishell | BDN
The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district. Buy Photo
The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district.
Darren Fishell | BDN
The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance blocking the loading of crude oil onto ships from its waterfront district. Buy Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The South Portland City Council effectively has banned the shipping of tar sands, or oil sands, from its waterfront with an ordinance that has gained international attention and that oil industry opponents have vowed to challenge in court or before city officials.

“The fight is not over,” Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said in a prepared response on behalf of the Working Waterfront Coalition.

While opponents alluded to a legal challenge, a representative for Portland Pipe Line Corp., which owns a pipeline that runs between South Portland and Montreal, declined to comment on specific next steps the group would take.

Matthew Manahan, attorney for Portland Pipe Line, told the council before the 6-1 vote it is an “illegal ordinance” that “would clearly be preempted by federal and state law.”

The vote comes as the Canadian province of Alberta is seeking international markets for its oil reserves, which are the third largest in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Canada’s National Energy Board in March gave approval to reverse the direction of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline from Alberta to Quebec, which could supply the Portland Pipe Line Corp. with tar sands crude to export.

The South Portland vote is the first explicit obstacle the pipeline faces in reversing its direction to unload tar sands from Alberta at the eastern port. Vermont has stated any pipeline reversal would need to undergo renewed permitting review but the state has not blocked tar sands outright. Many communities in that state have passed resolutions opposing the transmittal of tar sands within their borders.

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. repeatedly has stated it has no immediate plan to reverse the flow of its pipeline to transport tar sands east, but it has not ruled out the possibility.

Supporters hailed the vote as a groundbreaking measure that joins efforts from local residents to block other energy infrastructure developments they deem as threats to the environment and public safety — most notably the lawsuit brought by a group of Nebraska residents that has delayed development of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta to Texas.

The 6-1 vote in South Portland, with Councilor Michael Pock in opposition, makes final an earlier vote and tees up the next stage of the fight that began in a referendum campaign that sought to prohibit building infrastructure needed to export tar sands from the city’s waterfront. The referendum failed by a narrow margin.

Councilors who opposed the measure in a public letter and at the ballot box in November said Monday they changed their minds after a committee crafted a new ordinance limited it to preventing bulk loading of crude oil onto marine tank vessels.

Opponents argued the process that led to the council’s decision Monday night was flawed and trumped the decision of voters in November.

Councilors voting for the ordinance pointed to about 60 hours of meetings held by the committee to draft the ordinance as proof the process was open.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to plead with the [Portland Pipe Line Corp.] and Waterfront Coalition: Please do not fight this ordinance,” at-large Councilor Tom Blake said, noting the potential cost of a legal battle. “This ordinance is the will of the people. … All you’re going to do is alienate yourself even further.”

Py, for the Working Waterfront Coalition, argued in his prepared statement the committee was stacked with supporters of the ordinance.

“The council appointed three like-minded [draft ordinance committee] members and directed them to develop a ban on the loading of Canadian oil sands crude, deliberately bypassing any fact-based analysis with regulators and industry experts to assess whether such a ban was even necessary,” Py said. “The men and women of the Working Waterfront Coalition – whose livelihoods were treated as casual collateral damage throughout this process – will evaluate all political and legal means available to us to overturn this ordinance.”

That threat of legal action prompted a statement of support from the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental nonprofit legal group based in Boston, with offices in Portland.

“I hope there is no legal challenge to this ordinance, but if there is any and you’re required to spend precious resources, be sure that there are many who will stand with the city to help defend this ordinance,” Sean Mahoney, the foundation’s executive vice president and director of its Maine Advocacy Center, said.

Aside from the expected legal battle, Emily Figdor, leader of the group Environment Maine, said the ordinance results from successful community organizing.

“Citizens working together can do extraordinary things and the oil industry is not invincible,” Figdor said.

She estimated about 325 supporters of the ordinance turned out for Monday’s meeting wearing blue shirts or stickers indicating their support.

Many of those supporters spoke during the meeting, which lasted more than three hours. They claimed the ordinance would protect air quality along the city’s waterfront.

Opponents of the ordinance challenged the methods of groups backing the ordinance, saying the process was more political than scientific.

“I request that you take the emotion and politics off the table and actually examine the science of the matter,” said Tom Hardinson, vice president of the Portland Pipe Line Corp., which is owned under the umbrella entity Portland Montreal Pipe Line, or PMPL, along with Montreal Pipe Line Ltd. PMPL’s ownership includes Canadian oil refiners Suncor Energy Inc, Imperial Oil Ltd., and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

Burt Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy, which operates a South Portland terminal for refined oil products, also continued to voice his opposition to the ordinance Monday, arguing the process was flawed and did not include a “fact-based risk assessment.”

Sprague employs about 450 people, 50 of whom work at the South Portland operation.

Hardinson said the measure would limit the company’s ability to adapt to changing demand, against a landscape where the United States and Canada recently have started harvesting more of their own energy through tar sands and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

To alleviate concerns about any imminent plans, the company last year let lapse a Department of Environmental Protection emissions permit to build two 70-foot tall vapor control units that would be required to export crude oil from the city’s waterfront.

Gorden Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and an advocate of pipeline construction, said in a telephone interview the benefit for North America is reduced dependence on reserves in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, which he said are largely hostile to the United States.

Without new pipelines in place, Houlden said he expects tar sands from Alberta would be carried south and west in existing pipelines and by train through the United States and through British Columbia. Eastern exports, he said, most efficiently travel through Maine.

Without passage through Maine, Houlden said, reserves to the east would likely go around the state.

Before the vote, councilors approved a temporary moratorium on development of infrastructure to export tar sands oil from the waterfront. After they considered revoking that measure, they decided to keep it in place and consider removing it at a later vote.

They are scheduled to take up that 180-day moratorium at a Sept. 3 meeting.

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