Maine City Passes Tar Sands Moratorium, Following Narrow Referendum Loss

CREDIT: Michael Conathan

South Portland, Maine

SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE — After last November’s ballot referendum to prevent the flow of Canadian tar sands oil through a 70 year-old pipeline failed by a razor-thin margin in November, supporters vowed to continue the fight. On Monday night, they won a major victory when the city council voted 6-1 to impose a six month moratorium on any development or project that would lead to the loading of tar sands oil onto ships at South Portland’s waterfront.

The Portland-Montreal pipeline was completed in 1941, and since then has delivered fuel, primarily home heating oil, from the waterfront in Portland into Canada. This activity has made Portland the second-largest oil port by volume on the east coast. But with North American oil production on the rise, particularly in Canada’s heartland, the dynamics of the crude oil market are changing. And while approval of the massive Keystone XL pipeline project remains in limbo, this pipeline’s owners have made no secret about their desire to use their aging infrastructure to tap a new export market for tar sands.

According to a report from the Portland Press Herald, the moratorium is intended to give the council time to develop a more permanent set of restrictions on loading tar sands onto ships in South Portland. A three-member committee will be established in the coming weeks to develop the permanent language.

Supporters of the November ballot fell just 192 votes short of passing their referendum, despite an aggressive grass-roots campaign that saw volunteers knock on over 14,000 doors in a massive get-out-the-vote movement. Opponents of the ordinance, led by the company that owns the Portland-Montreal pipeline, outspent supporters nearly 10-to-1 over the course of the campaign, raising over $750,000 primarily from corporate donors including the American Petroleum Institute.

Earlier this month, following some procedural moves by the council to clear the way for the moratorium, API’s attorney, Harry Ng, made it clear the group was not going to stand on the sidelines this time around either. Ng sent a five-page letter to the council, dated December 3, in which he asserted the group’s opposition to the moratorium, questioned its legality, and raised the specter of “strong legal challenges” if it was adopted.

Most local politicians have been undeterred by both the referendum’s failure and API’s threatened legal action. South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert has continued to receive a steady stream of calls from concerned constituents who don’t want their town “to be known as the tar sands capital of the United States.” And Jalbert’s mayoral predecessor, Councilman Tom Blake, has led the charge against tar sands, and worked successfully to ensure the support of all but one of his colleagues on the council.

Blake and his wife visited Mayflower, Arkansas last spring after a 70 year-old pipeline ruptured in that community, befouling their waterways with toxic tar sands. He came away more determined than ever to protect South Portland, Casco Bay, Sebago Lake, and the rest of Maine and New England’s natural resources from a similar fate.

While the 85 jobs and nearly $9 million in annual wages generated at the port are clearly important to this coastal community, council members would do well to remember the alternatives. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, in 2010, the ocean tourism and recreation industry in Cumberland County, which includes Portland and Casco Bay, accounted for over 12,000 jobs and nearly $200 million in wages. And in 2012, Cumberland County’s lobstermen landed over $39 million worth of bottom-dwelling crustaceans.

For now, South Portland is safe from becoming the “tar sands capital of the United States.” But more battles surely loom on the horizon.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress and a resident of South Portland, Maine.