The Oil Industry Hits an Unexpected Roadblock in Maine

Source: In These Times

A small city in Maine strikes a blow against Canadian tar sands extraction.

Opponents of tar sands—the massive bituminous oil deposits in Alberta, Canada with a greenhouse gas impact four times greater than that of standard crude—have inched one step closer to a major victory.

On Wednesday night, the City Council of South Portland, Maine voted 6-1 to pass an early version of an ordinance that would ban the loading of crude oil onto ships and related infrastructure within city limits. It’s a local land use issue with staggering global implications: The oil industry, activists worry, wants to reverse the flow of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, a series of pipelines first built in World War II that now ships imported crude from the coast of Maine to Montreal. Amid ongoing tar sands extraction in Canada—and a dearth of export routes there—it would make more economic sense for the pipelines to flow the other way.

As it stands, two hotly contested pipeline proposals in Canada—TransCanada’s Energy East and Enbridge’s Line 9 expansion—would, if approved, transport tar sands oil from Alberta to eastern Canada. From there, the industry still needs access to overseas markets. By closing the door on exports from South Portland, the local ordinance essentially eliminates one potential path to the sea—the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line. This matters in Alberta: As a recent International Energy Agency report found, future tar sands extraction depends heavily on export capacity.

“From the standpoint of all the folks that have an interest in stopping tar sands from expanding, this is an important line of defense,” says David Stember, an organizer with, which helped gather support for the ordinance in the area. “It is a very big deal.”

But South Portland’s “Clear Skies Ordinance” isn’t finalized just yet. It’s now en route to the city’s planning board, which can make recommendations for any changes before sending it back to the City Council. The Council is then expected to take a final vote on the measure on July 21.

It’s been a long time coming. Last summer, activists with the group Protect South Portland launched a petition drive, which culminated in a local ballot question that would have blocked future oil infrastructure development in the town’s port, including the means to export crude overseas. But the proposed measure lost by an agonizingly close 51-49 percent margin—or 192 votes. The “no” side, which included the likes of the lobbying giant American Petroleum Institute (API), pumped out nearly $750,000 to fight the ordinance, outspending the initiative’s proponents by a 10-1 margin.

That sent activists back to the drawing board. In an attempt to sidestep critiques of regulatory overreach, advocates pushed for a more narrowly framed measure specifically targeting the loading of oil onto ships rather than blocking industry-wide development projects. Last December, the City Council passed a moratorium to that effect. The passage of that moratorium, in turn, spurred the creation of a Draft Ordinance Committee, which forwarded its proposal to City Council in June.

The relative speed of this move has heartened activists in the area. “We have seen officials in the city of South Portland move so far, so fast,” says Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, a state-level group that backs the ordinance. “It’s a testament to the power of people coming together to protect their community.”

And such an alliance is proving to be necessary. South Portland City Council was supposed to vote on the measure on Monday. But the unexpected turnout of a red shirt-clad anti-ordinance contingent—alongside hundreds of blue-shirt-wearing backers—forced the council to reschedule in the hopes of finding a larger space to accommodate the crowd. Activists from Protect South Portland and Environment Maine blamed industry interests for trying to delay the vote.

ExxonMobil, the majority owner of Portland Pipe Line and a member of the API, referred comment requests to Portland Pipe Line. Portland Pipe Line and the API did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

In the past, however, Portland Pipe Line has brushed aside charges that it plans to reverse the flow of the pipeline. But the locals don’t buy it.

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