South Portland, Maine Hammers Nail into Coffin of Proposed Tar Sands Pipeline through New England
Last night, the South Portland, Maine City Council approved the Clear Skies Ordinance in a 6-1 vote, thereby prohibiting the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto tankers on the waterfront, as well as the construction of new related infrastructure in the city. The passage of this ordinance is another nail in the coffin of ExxonMobil’s Portland-Montreal tar sands pipeline, and a major victory for air quality in South Portland, for land and water in New England, and for our climate.
If reversed, the aging Portland-Montreal Pipe Line would complete the link from Alberta’s tar sands oil to an East Coast port – transporting tar sands from Montreal, Quebec through New England to South Portland, Maine, where it would be loaded onto tankers in Casco Bay for marine transport. Bulk loading tar sands onto tankers would increase air pollution, including of toxic air pollutants in South Portland. It also would require new infrastructure, including two 70-foot combustion smokestacks, such as those previously permitted by the city and state for Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s 2009 proposal to bulk load tar sands onto tankers. The smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants, like benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia, during the loading process. It is not right for the people of South Portland to have to face this kind of environmental and health threat; the South Portland City Council made the right decision last night in passing the Clear Skies Ordinance to ban the bulk loading of crude oil and construction of related infrastructure in South Portland.
While those promoting the ordinance were focused on the risks to South Portland from bulk loading tars ands, the passage of this ordinance also has broader regional, national and even international implications. Without being able to build the infrastructure to load tar sands crude oil onto tankers, it will not make sense for the pipeline company to reverse the pipeline. What’s more, across the continent, in Nebraska, in Maine, in British Columbia, communities are saying “no” to tar sands oil, because they are worried about the threat that it poses to their land, air, water and climate. They are succeeding in blocking tar sands pipelines, and the lack of pipeline capacity is forcing a slow-down of tar sands expansion, as my colleague Anthony Swift has written about.
In the last few months, two major proposed tar sands mines were canceled due to financial pressures caused in large part by pipeline capacity constraints and the uncertainty of proposed pipeline project developments, including Keystone XL. In June, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) lowered their projection of tar sands production in 2030 by 400,000 barrels per day. CAPP recognized that the largest factor in the tar sands industry’s ability to reach even this reduced production forecast is whether proposed pipelines come on in a rapid manner. And when discussing the tar sands industry’s pared down 2014 expansion forecast, CAPP’s Vice President Greg Stringham concluded, “The biggest uncertainty in this forecast is the timing associated with this [pipeline] capacity and whether or not they can deliver the capacity on the timelines they now propose.” This shows us yet again that there is so much opposition to other proposed tar sands pipelines that none of them are a guarantee – so that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would in fact drive significant tar sands expansion if approved.
Communities are right to be concerned about tar sands pipelines and the expansion of tar sands extraction. Tar sands pipelines are more likely to spill, and when they do spill, the spills can be impossible to clean up, as the heavy tar sands bitumen sinks, and the diluents that it must be mixed with to allow for pipeline transport evaporating and putting toxic chemicals into the air. In fact, this Friday will be the four-year anniversary of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. When the spill occurred, community members like Susan Connolly and her children, who live near the spill, experienced a range of symptoms including burning in their eyes and throat, migraines, nausea, upset stomachs, lethargy, and a strange rash. To date, the clean-up has cost more than $1 billion, and it is unlikely that the river will ever be fully cleaned up, so that it continues to affect community member’s businesses and their ability to use the river recreationally.
Making fuels like gasoline and diesel from tar sands also causes more greenhouse gas emissions than making fuels from conventional oil, so that turning to tar sands sets us back on climate, wiping out gains such as the ones we are making with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding, and other local, state, regional and national greenhouse gas reduction efforts.
While the passage of the ordinance last night is a major victory worth celebrating, unfortunately, we cannot rest easy. The American Petroleum Institute has already threatened to bring a legal challenge to the Clear Skies Ordinance. In addition, while the Clear Skies Ordinance protects the people of South Portland from impacts like hazardous air pollution, there are other threats that remain. Without action to keep tar sands out of Maine and the Northeast, the region – which currently gets essentially zero gasoline derived from tar sands – could see tar sands grow to as much as 18% of our fuel mix by 2020. This would increase carbon pollution across the region by approximately 10 million metric tons and nearly wipe out the promised carbon reductions under the landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Governors of Northeast states need to take action to keep tar sands fuels out of the region, but today, we can celebrate.
To the South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert and to the South Portland City Council, I say thank you—for your tremendous leadership and courage in passing the Clear Skies Ordinance. This was an impressive response to the concerns of citizens with an open, deliberative, and thorough process to develop and consider this new ordinance and protect South Portland from a tar sands disaster.
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