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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Industry pays $135 per vote to narrowly win tar sands battle in South Portland, ME, but the war has just begun

Elizabeth Shope

Posted November 6, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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In a disappointing – yet far from devastating – vote in South Portland, Maine yesterday, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance was voted down by a narrow margin of only 192 votes, with 49% of the voters who turned out supporting this important ordinance. The South Portland Waterfront Protection Ordinance, a proposed amendment to South Portland’s zoning code, would have made it extremely difficult for industry to reverse and transport tar sands through the ExxonMobil majority-owned Portland-Montreal pipeline by limiting its export potential. Specifically, it would have prohibited the type of massive industrial structures, such as the building of 70 foot tall smokestacks to burn off emissions related to tanker loading, needed to turn South Portland into a tar sands export port. In this town of just 19,000 voters, industry spent more than $600,000 fighting the ordinance, nearly 6 times the amount spent by those supporting the ordinance. While the ordinance did not pass, the process of educating voters and elected officials, and cultivating volunteers has done a tremendous amount to advance the position of the individuals and organizations fighting tar sands expansion and the Portland-Montreal pipeline reversal. In fact, South Portland Mayor Tom Blake reportedly said to supporters following the announcement of yesterday’s result, “I am 100% confident we will never have tar sands in our city.”

The oil industry-funded campaign to defeat the ordinance also involved some unethical tactics. While volunteers supporting the ordinance knocked on 16,000 doors, made 19,000 phone calls, and spoke with 10,000 voters to educate them about the importance of the ordinance, industry used their $600,000 to hire paid staff and promulgate misinformation. As Mayor Tom Blake put it, industry executives were “deliberately misinterpreting the ordinance in order to scare businesses into supporting them.” Despite the fact that the only thing the ordinance would have done is to prevent the oil industry from building a tar sands export terminal by preventing new oil infrastructure, the industry hired consultants to do an economic analysis about the impacts of shutting down the city’s oil operations – something that the ordinance would not do. Yet the ordinance opponents pushed the results of the analysis (loss of 5,600 jobs and $252 million in earnings) as reasons to oppose the ordinance. Closer to the vote, reports from the field suggested that industry supporters were going so far as to try to confuse voters by telling them that if they were against tar sands, then they should vote against the ordinance.

So what’s at stake and why did industry invest so much in this fight? With major proposed tar sands pipelines experiencing tremendous opposition – like the Keystone XL from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines, from Alberta to British Columbia – industry is desperate to open up additional markets for the tar sands. And they are having a lot of trouble gaining new access to export markets. One such pathway to the U.S. East Coast would make Portland, Maine a possible export option. This would require use of existing pipelines including a reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline between Sarnia, ON and Montreal, QC, part of which has been approved by Canada’s National Energy Board and part of which is still under consideration, and a reversal of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline to Portland, Maine.

TSFNE map revised.jpg

But industry did not appear to be banking on the level of opposition that has rallied against this project. In January, more than 1,400 people turned out to a rally in the blistering cold against the pipeline reversal in Portland, Maine. More than 3 dozen towns in the Northeast have passed resolutions expressing concern about or opposing the transport of tar sands through the Northeast. Eighteen Members of Congress from throughout New England along with Governor Hassan of New Hampshire and Governor Shumlin of Vermont have raised concerns about tar sands flowing through New England. After successful arguments from New England and national environmental groups, the State of Vermont decided that reversing the Portland-Montreal Pipeline to send tar sands through it would require an Act 250 permit for this change in use of the pipeline – which it could well deny. And earlier this year, a citizens group known as Protect South Portland, collected nearly four times the requisite 950 signatures to force the city-wide vote on Waterfront Protection Ordinance.

portland protest 2.jpgA few of the 1400+ people who came out to rally and march against tar sands in Portland, ME in January 2013

In fact, citizens across the United States and Canada have turned out in tremendous numbers to oppose tar sands pipelines as the risks are simply too great. Making gasoline or diesel from tar sands causes 81% more greenhouse gas emissions than doing so from conventional oil. And the properties of tar sands are such that tar sands pipeline transport is extra risky – with more frequent, more dangerous, and harder to clean up spills. For example, the July 2010 tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan, and the March 2013 tar sands spill in Mayflower, Arkansas are still being cleaned up and affecting residents.

This bottom of the barrel fuel takes us far in the wrong direction from a clean energy future, and despite this temporary loss in South Portland, local communities throughout New England with the full support of NRDC only intend to redouble efforts to stop the increasing flood of tar sands to the United States. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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