Energy & Environment

The Town That Roared

A quiet port in New England opens up a new front in the fight against tar sands oil

Tom Blake grew up around oil. As a child, he hit tennis balls off oil tanks in tank farms when it was warm, and jumped off them into the snow when it was cold. During his 27-year career as a firefighter and paramedic, he inspected hundreds of oil tankers that sailed into South Portland’s Casco Bay in Maine. But until two years ago, Tom Blake had never heard of Alberta’s tar sands.

Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member
Now Blake and others in this active port town of 25,000 are on the cusp of doing something remarkable, something that few in North America have been able to do thus far at a local level: block the flow of tar sands oil through their community.

Now Blake and others in this active port town of 25,000 are on the cusp of doing something remarkable, something that few in North America have been able to do thus far at a local level: block the flow of tar sands oil through their community.

Currently crude oil flows through a pipeline under South Portland, northwest through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, en route to refineries in Montreal’s east end. Since its construction in 1941, the pipeline has carried crude oil from east to west. But changes in the oil market and the recent reversal of the Line 9 pipeline have residents here worried that the 70-year-old pipeline will also be reversed, bringing oil from the tar sands to shipping routes in the North Atlantic.

Last November, voters in the town were asked in a public referendum to decide whether to ban tar sands oil from their waterfront. The measure narrowly failed by a margin of 192 votes, out of almost 9,000 ballots cast. Supporters of the ordinance say that it was too broadly worded, allowing oil industry lobbyists to convince those who worked in all manner of industries surrounding the waterfront that their jobs were at risk.

People in South Portland say that the ordinance divided the community in a way that few things have. Blake, an outspoken supporter of the measure, told Ricochet that he had received death threats and had dog excrement thrown at his car.

The day after the narrow failure of the ordinance, in late 2013, city councillors put in place a six-month moratorium on tar sands oil coming through South Portland. They also struck a committee charged with drafting a new measure that would make the ban more permanent.

A December letter from the American Petroleum Institute warned of “strong legal challenges,” but the city council nevertheless voted to extend its moratorium for another six months on April 23.

Despite threats from D.C.-based oil lobbies, an April 17 meeting of the new ordinance committee painted a strange portrait: a team of city bureaucrats planning to enact the desires of local environmentalists while a local oil industry lobbyist essentially pleaded with the council members not to regulate the Portland-Montreal Pipeline “out of business.” The portrait gets stranger still.

This peculiar scenario is the result of a creative strategy by South Portland and Maine’s environmentalists: the use of local municipal bylaws to target the infrastructure of oil. South Portland cannot regulate what type of oil passes through the pipeline, because such matters are governed by the U.S. federal interstate commerce clause. They can, however, through local planning and zoning laws, regulate changes to infrastructure in the city and to their port.

At the same meeting where an oil lobbyist pleaded for the life of the pipeline, an hour-long presentation to the committee by a local conservation lawyer didn’t mention oil once.

At the same meeting where an oil lobbyist pleaded for the life of the pipeline, an hour-long presentation to the committee by a local conservation lawyer didn’t mention oil once.

Instead, Sean Mahoney, from the New England Conservation Law Foundation, talked at length about the discharge of ballast water and whether South Portland had the authority to regulate it. South Portland does indeed have the authority, Mahoney told the committee. For an outside observer, it might be difficult to determine what ballast water had to do with the tar sands, but it illustrates the imaginativeness with which people here are attacking the issue. If a ship cannot discharge ballast water in South Portland’s Casco Bay, it means that ships cannot enter the bay without cargo. This would effectively prevent empty oil tankers from coming to the pipeline to fill up on oil from the tar sands.

In a quiet way, oil is everywhere in South Portland. Tank farms dot the community, and the pipeline runs underneath several residential areas on its way to the port. The city may also become a new battleground in the fight against tar sands oil. As farmers in Nebraska carve anti–tar sands messages into their cornfields, these South Portlanders are putting their finger in the dyke as Albertan tar sands oil tries to find its way to market. In the city’s draft ordinance committee meetings, debate over the character of the tar sands is all but moot. Even Jaime Py, the local oil man, used the term ‘tar sands’ rather than the industry preferred ‘oil sands’ in his remarks about the pipeline company.

On May 30, Draft Ordinance Committee (DOC) Facilitator Jeff Edelstein released the committee’s final recommendations for a new version of the ordinance to ban tar sands oil from the town. The report is the result of roughly six months' worth of meetings and deliberation on the part of the committee, along with scores of expert testimonials and public comments. The committee has taken its time coming up with its recommendations for a new ordinance because it has to be legally bulletproof.

After the city council put in place its initial six-month moratorium, it received a strongly worded letter from the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C. The letter touted the economic benefits of tar sands, while offering threats of legal action if South Portland took further action to ban tar sands oil. “If enacted, the Moratorium, like the failed [initial ordinance], would face strong legal challenges and would be found invalid under state and federal law,” wrote Harry Ng, vice-president and general counsel for the American Petroleum Institute.

With the Keystone XL pipeline looking less and less likely, the Portland-Montreal pipeline, along with the Northern Gateway in British Columbia, is becoming the new battlegrounds for anti–tar sands activists. The new recommendations from the DOC are a further testament to the creativity that now characterizes the fight against the tar sands: they are more focused on what the oil would do to the sky above South Portland than the ground it sits under.

The DOC has proposed the “South Portland Clear Skies Ordinance," which would restrict the construction of the vapour combustion machinery needed to load bulk crude oil onto cargo ships. The city council’s legal right to do so is based on a strong tradition of local governance in New England, so it remains unclear what Canadian municipalities can learn from the example of South Portland.

The city of Burnaby, in British Columbia, is on the front lines of local resistance in Canada. The municipality is refusing to allow Kinder Morgan to perform tests on a pipeline route that would pass through a local mountain, and the company is now threatening to seek an order from the National Energy Board forcing the city to cooperate. My colleague Emma Pullman will have more on the transport of oil in western Canada in the coming weeks, as part of this Ricochet investigative series.

Back in Maine, and despite likely legal challenges from the oil industry, Blake is confident. “I still don’t think [the oil companies] realize they’ll never get tar sands oil through South Portland,” he said.

You might also be interested in...
Fight for 15
B.C. needs a brisk boost to $15/hr minimum wage
Michal Rozworski
December 7, 2017
Justice and equality
Canada must end discrimination against immigrants living with HIV
December 21, 2017