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South Portland Council approves moratorium on tar sands

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Oil conduit leads away from the Portland Pipe Line Corporation's terminal facility on the South Portland water front Friday Feb. 1, 2013.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The South Portland City Council on Monday evening approved a six-month moratorium on exporting oil sand crude, also known as tar sands, through the city’s port facilities.

The council voted 6-1 to approve the moratorium, which is retroactive and is now considered to have been in place since Nov. 6. City Councilor Michael Pock was the sole opposing vote, arguing that the moratorium is unfair to the oil industry, according to The Forecaster.

The moratorium, which will be in place until May 5, will give a council-appointed, three-member committee time to draft an ordinance that permanently bans the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from bringing tar sands from Montreal into South Portland along its 236-mile pipeline. The city is expected to vote on the ordinance in early May.

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. has operated the pipeline since World War II, though it has always carried crude oil from South Portland’s waterfront to Montreal for use by refineries in that region. Shifts in the global oil industry, some instigated by the rise of tar sands extraction in western Canada, have caused the company to contemplate reversing the flow of the pipeline to carry tar sands from Montreal to South Portland, where it would be loaded onto ships and exported to refineries around the world.

The company does not currently have official plans to reverse its pipeline, though CEO Larry Wilson has told the Bangor Daily News that the idea isn’t out of the question.

Opponents of tar sands, which some believe pose more serious health and environmental risks than crude oil, launched a pre-emptive campaign to block the company from moving ahead with any future plans. A citizen initiative to ban tar sands with a new city ordinance was narrowly defeated at the ballot box on Nov. 5. Many residents and the oil-related businesses in the city expressed concern that the ordinance was too broad and would yield unintended consequences for waterfront businesses.

However, the City Council proposed the current moratorium the day after the Nov. 5 vote.

“We are thrilled that South Portland has taken such a significant step to protect Casco Bay, our coast, our air quality, and our climate from tar sands,” Taryn Hallweaver, campaigns director for Environment Maine, said in a statement. “Never before has a U.S. community taken action that comes so close to stopping a trans-national tar sands pipeline. It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when citizens come together, even in the face of the oil industry’s deep pockets and enormous political influence.”

The vote came after just less than two hours of public comment, largely in favor of passing the moratorium, according to The Forecaster.

The American Petroleum Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization that lobbies on behalf of the oil industry, earlier this month threatened in a letter to the South Portland City Council that approving such a moratorium would spur legal challenges.

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