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Environment and Outdoors

Lawsuit Looms as South Portland Tar Sands Ordinance Poised for Passage

Susan Sharon

Environmentalists are anticipating passage later tonight of a local ordinance that blocks Canadian tar sands oil and other raw crude from being loaded onto tanker ships.  The South Portland City Council's action could complicate plans to use a controversial pipeline that runs across northern New England.  But Canadian crude has other avenues into the region.

Known as the site where Liberty ships were built by tens of thousands of workers during World War II, South Portland's waterfront is now home to a busy oil terminal, as well as to lobstermen who make their living in Casco Bay. The old shipyard has been replaced by a city park with a lighthouse, a popular walking trail and scenic views of the harbor. High-priced condos are a stone's throw away.  And so is the beginning of the 236-mile-long Portland-Montreal Pipeline.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
A tanker makes its way recently into the harbor in South Portland.

"Right now we're looking at Portland Harbor and we're looking at a tanker that's coming in right now." Standing at the edge of Bug Light Park, South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert says the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Company has a good safety record.  For more than 50 years, the company has off-loaded crude in the harbor and transported it by pipeline across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for distribution and refining in Montreal.  

But the company has expressed interest in possibly using the same pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil from the other direction to South Portland for export on the world market.  Jalbert says residents' concerns about a possible spill, the associated air pollution and the difficulty in cleaning up a heavier, more toxic form of crude, moved the council to approve the so-called "Clear Skies Ordinance" in an initial vote of 6-1 two weeks ago.

"The Clear Skies Ordinance prohibits the bulk loading of crude oil onto marine tank vessels," Jalbert says. "It does not affect any current operations."

Credit Susan Sharon
Burton Russell of Sprague Energy.

It may not affect current operations, but Burton Russell, of Sprague Energy, says it restricts industry's future ability to adapt to changing markets.  Sprague operates several energy terminals in the region and serves as a middle wholesaler for several refined products.

"It forecloses on a business opportunity," Russell says, "doesn't consider the current technology or future technology and it sets a dangerous precedent, we believe, for all businesses."

Russell says Sprague has no plans to import tar sands oil itself.  But he says the company's hallmark over the years has been its ability to innovate, to handle products for other companies that it never imagined would be part of its portfolio: jet fuel for the Portland Jetport for example, ultra-low sulfur diesel and China clay for the pulp and paper industry.  

In a letter to the City Council, Dana Connors of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce warns that passage of the ordinance has broad implications for local, state, national and international commerce, and that it could jeopardize energy security in the region.

But at least one industry analyst disagrees. "I don't think this is going to make a big difference in terms of Northeastern crude supply," says Tom Kloza, of the Oil Price Information Service. Kloza says crude is going to come from Canadian tar sands into the United States, with or without pipelines.

"One thing we've learned in the last couple of years is that you can move crude oil by rail very, very quickly," Kloza says. "The fact of the matter is New England is going to get most of its product from a couple of refineries in the Canadian Maritimes, European, Gulf Coast and Northeastern refineries."

Credit Susan Sharon
Mary Jane Ferrier of the group Protect South Portland.

But Mary Jane Ferrier, of the group Protect South Portland, says what's happening in South Portland is empowering, not just for local activists, but for those engaged in similar efforts around the country.  Her group supported an anti-tar sands referendum that was defeated by South Portland voters last year.  The group is now backing the Clear Skies Ordinance.

"We want to have a say about what happens in our city," Ferrier says. "And if something is going to come into our city that we think will be bad for us, then we want to be able to stop that."

Ferrier, who lives a block from the pipeline, says she'll sleep easier at night knowing the ordinance is in place.  Mayor Jalbert and others say they expect a lawsuit from the pipeline company.  Jalbert says the city has a plan to solicit online contributions from environmental groups in the event that mounting a defense becomes necessary.  

A spokesman for the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Company did not respond to a request for comment for this story.