How The South Portland City Council Foiled Big Oil’s Plan To Sneak Tar Sands Out Of Canada

Portland Harbor, a potential export point for Canadian tar sands crude. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY
Portland Harbor, a potential export point for Canadian tar sands crude. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY

On Monday evening, the city council in South Portland, Maine made a small change to a commercial zoning law that had much larger international repercussions for the fossil fuel industry and the climate.

The council stopped another “Plan B” to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline by voting 6–1 to pass an ordinance that bans the bulk loading of crude oil onto ships from the town’s waterfront. This means that the Portland-Montreal pipeline, which is now used to pump crude oil from the U.S. to Canada, would find it very difficult to reverse its flow to begin pumping tar sands crude oil extracted from Alberta to export in Portland.

The kicker? ExxonMobil owns a majority stake in the pipeline, according to a report from NRDC. Mary-Jane Ferrier, spokesperson for Protect South Portland, said “the people of South Portland should be really proud of our city today.”

Maine does not produce oil on its own; it has imported oil by sea via Portland’s harbor since World War II. This pipeline was built between Portland and Montreal after Nazi naval attacks disrupted Canadian oil shipments on the St. Lawrence River. Ever since, it has quietly pumped oil underneath Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec to Montreal.


As Canadian tar sands oil production has grown, it has desperately sought pipeline connections to overseas export markets. This has led to fights with local communities that are concerned with the safety consequences of pumping the thick, heavy tar sands oil through their lands and waters, and others who are concerned with the fact that tar sands oil extraction is at least three times as carbon-intensive as conventional crude oil.

“Maine’s been confronting the specter of tar sands since 2009,” said Dylan Voorhees, the Clean Energy Program Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He pointed out that the local environmental impact of exporting crude oil is much worse than importing it. Loading a tanker requires different infrastructure, such as additional smokestacks, which raise air quality concerns.

In 2012, pipeline giant Enbridge applied to Canadian authorities to reverse the Line 9 pipeline from Sarnia to Montreal, and the next step in getting tar sands oil to market would be to reverse the Portland-Montreal pipeline. “ExxonMobil and Canadian oil giant Enbridge plan to use an antiquated oil pipeline that passes right next to Sebago Lake to transport highly corrosive tar-sands oil from Canada to Casco Bay for export,” warned Environment Maine’s website in 2013.

Though Portland Pipe Line Corp. still says that there is no plan to reverse the Portland-Montreal pipeline to export, the pipeline’s owners have fought for the right to offload oil to tankers in South Portland’s harbor.

With Canadian oil interests looking for any route they can get to deliver their product to market, the fight moved to South Portland Monday night — the big oil companies lost the battle, foiled by a well-organized grassroots movement and a staid, transparent local government.


“It’s pretty special what we were able to accomplish last night,” South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert said about the vote. Jalbert noted the open and transparent process preceding it, with the committee tasked with handling the ordinance meeting 20 times before passing it along to the city council. That council, Jalbert was quick to note, is nonpartisan.

“We went out of our way to invite, solicit, and even cajole comments from all involved, including the oil industry in following our mandate from the city council to help protect South Portland from the negative effects of tar sands handling,” said Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress and a member of the Draft Ordinance Committee appointed by the city council. “We spent more than 60 hours in open meetings, and heard from stakeholders on all sides. The result is an ordinance that allows all current operations at the port to continue while restricting future uses that might harm the city and its residents.”

All that changed is that crude oil cannot be transferred from the port to a ship — it does not specify tar sands oil, and it does not affect the general movement of oil in the harbor. Ships will still be able to deliver oil to the pipeline for transport to Montreal — it’s an established business practice. But it won’t be exporting oil. After a long process, Jalbert noted, “this is the final vote.”

Pipeline supporters are not giving up. Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said after the vote, “the fight is not over.” Matthew Manahan, the attorney for pipeline owner Portland Pipe Line Corp., told the city council that the “illegal ordinance … would clearly be preempted by federal and state law.”

There is enough talk of a legal challenge to the ordinance that Mayor Jalbert is working to set up a legal defense fund with donations from anyone who was allowed to contribute, including environmental groups. “As far as a potential lawsuit, we think we would be successful,” Jalbert said Tuesday. “We feel we could win.”

It remains unseen what legal tactics the tar sands export supporters will use to fight back, but supporters feel comfortable that all meetings and legislative steps were transparent.


“Some opponents claim they wanted more of an open and transparent process,” said Conathan. “We effectively drafted this ordinance in a glass house with all the lights on. There was ample opportunity for the pipeline company, the American Petroleum Institute, and anyone else to make their voices heard. It would have been far more helpful to hear from them during the process than after it.”

While the tar sands oil is unlikely to come through Portland, companies with investments in Alberta are simply looking for other routes. Last month, the Canadian government gave initial approval to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, which would connect tar sands reserves to the coast of British Columbia. The proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline would connect those reserves to Quebec and other proposed terminals on the Atlantic seaboard, recently making news for moving forward with an export terminal on Saint John and buying a town’s silence on the proposal for $28,000.

But in each case, the fossil fuel interests have found themselves blocked by the same determined local efforts.

“Communities know that we are not alone, and we are strongest when we work together,” said Jane Kleeb, Director of Bold Nebraska. She said that the tar sands companies are banking on the idea that their products are inevitable, and actions like this make clear that this is not the case.

“We’re very grateful that you guys have put the kibosh on these plans,” said Bill McKibben, Board Chair and co-founder. He described South Portland as another “cork in the bottle” of the tar sands fields.