They’re trumped by risks exposed by oil spills elsewhere, and the lack of any plan for piping crude from Canada into South Portland.
By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald column
Maybe it was the guy from Steep Falls who told South Portland city councilors that if they approve the city’s “Clear Skies Ordinance,” they’ll forfeit the right to begin their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance “because you don’t believe in it.”
Or maybe it was the 25-year employee of Portland Pipe Line Corp. who told the councilors that by banning the bulk loading of crude oil onto tankers in Portland Harbor, they’d “sell our souls to coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants.”
Or maybe it was the Sprague Energy worker who warned that the proposed ordinance clashes with the “Certified Business Friendly” signs bestowed upon the city last year by Gov. Paul LePage.
Bottom line: Opponents of the new-and-improved effort to keep tar sands oil away from South Portland’s doorstep have a big problem on their hands – and it’s not just the council’s preliminary 6-1 vote in favor of the measure after a four-hour-plus meeting Wednesday night.
They’ve yet to explain, specifically, why it’s not a good idea.
The 14-page ordinance, drafted over the past six months by a committee of three volunteer professionals who clearly know what they’re talking about, is by far a better document than the “Waterfront Protection Ordinance” narrowly defeated at the polls last fall.
Where the previous ordinance was arguably a sledgehammer, nixing the expansion of any and all oil-related infrastructure on the waterfront, this one is a scalpel. It excises from South Portland’s future the bulk loading, and only the bulk loading, of Canadian crude onto ships bound from Maine to wherever the worldwide demand for unrefined oil might take them – assuming the need for such a transportation model even existed.
Which, for the record, it never has: As the Draft Ordinance Committee notes in its cover memo, the export of bulk crude “has never been a traditional land use within the city.”
Nor is it likely to be: As Press Herald staffer Tux Turkel reported last September, Canadian oil experts see no need to ship tar sands crude from faraway Alberta through Maine because refineries in eastern Canada have more than enough capacity to process the crude themselves.
“There are no plans or proposals to ship crude (from Alberta) past Montreal,” one industry official told Turkel at the time.
So why the predictions of gloom and doom? Why the red T-shirts (outnumbered two-to-one by the other side’s sky-blue T-shirts) sporting a U.S. flag and “American Energy” on the front and “SoPo Jobs” on the back? Why the claims that if the “Clear Skies Ordinance” passes in its final reading on July 21, South Portland’s working waterfront – nay, its entire economy – will be doomed?
Fear, that’s why. Along with a boatload of wishful thinking.
The simple reality is that the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, built during World War II to circumvent Germany’s blockade of the St. Lawrence River, is nowhere near the vibrant conduit it once was.
One of the company’s two pipelines – 18 inches in diameter with a capacity to move 192,000 barrels a day – is out of service for lack of demand. The other line – 24 inches with a capacity of 410,000 barrels a day – was operating at less than half capacity as of last year.
In other words, the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line needs a lifeline. And if there’s even a remote possibility that reversing its flow and piping tar sands crude through South Portland might save the 73-year-old operation from an otherwise natural death, it’s no surprise that the company and its allies (starting with the American Petroleum Institute) would fight like hell to keep all options open.
Nor, on the other hand, should anyone be surprised that many South Portlanders, having witnessed the devastation wreaked by tar sands spills in places like Arkansas and Michigan, see nothing good coming from the stuff passing through their community.
“It scares me,” noted Councilor Linda Cohen in a moment of crystal clarity late Wednesday evening.
Enter the Clear Skies Ordinance, so named because it bases its jurisdictional claim not on the crude oil itself (which is federally regulated), but rather on the air emissions and negative visual impacts the outgoing crude and its related equipment could have on South Portland’s waterfront.
The measure, drafted over 60 herculean hours by Draft Ordinance Committee members Michael Conathan, Russell Pierce and David Critchfield, does nothing – repeat, nothing – to affect current activities up and down the waterfront.
Incoming crude bound for Montreal? Bring it.
Gasoline and home heating oil? No change.
Kerosene, jet fuel, biodiesel, ethanol and any other refined fuel products currently flowing through South Portland’s sprawling waterfront industrial complex? Nothing in the proposed ordinance will divert so much as a drop.
Yet somehow, according to Big Oil-backed opponents, any councilor who supports the ordinance is now anti-business and, by extension, anti-worker, anti-worker’s family and, last but not least, anti-American.
Baloney. Wearing an American flag across your chest isn’t a measure of your patriotism. It’s at best a fashion statement – and an over-the-top one at that.
Equally bogus are opponents’ claims that they’ve somehow been shut out of a process that, in reality, should serve as a case study for transparency in local government. Not only was every second of the draft committee’s deliberations open to the public, but tapes of those sessions are still accessible on the city’s website, along with every piece of written correspondence, accumulated research and other documentation.
“I think there’s been a real process that’s been transparent and welcoming and inclusive,” noted Councilor Patricia Smith before casting her vote with the majority. “So for some folks who don’t feel that they had their voice, I beg to differ.”
Councilor Cohen, just before casting her “yes” vote, said she thought (at least before Wednesday) that the ordinance represented a much-need compromise.
“I guess there are going to be some times when, no matter what we do and no matter what we come up with, there’s going be someone who is just not going to be happy with it,” lamented Cohen, who also serves as president of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber.
She’s right. Depending on where one stands in any public policy debate, there’s a fine line between compromise and capitulation.
But as opponents to the Clear Skies Ordinance take their fight from the City Council to another all-but-certain protracted court battle, they should keep one thing in mind.
“Certified Business Friendly” is, when it’s all said and done, a catchy slogan.
It doesn’t trump a community’s peace of mind.