Maine town could be in for a legal fight if it passes an ordinance that would prevent oil sands crude from reaching its port
By Jason Magder
Montreal Gazette news story
SOUTH PORTLAND, Me. — The mint-green pipes jutting out of the ocean contrast starkly with the picturesque Bug Light lighthouse.
Far less pretty, the pipes have perhaps played an equally important role as the lighthouse has in the development of this city into a major seaport.
Built in 1941, the Portland-Montreal pipeline was conceived as a way to circumvent a naval blockade of the St. Lawrence River during the Second World War.
After the war, it helped establish Portland as a major centre for shipping petroleum products.
Now the second-largest oil port on the East Coast, Portland has in recent years been seeing far fewer oil tankers coming in to port to fill the pipeline, now used at half capacity. About 600,000 barrels of Venezuelan and other global crudes are sent per day over the 378-kilometre pipeline to the Suncor refinery in the east end of Montreal. It takes two days for a barrel of oil to make the trip.
Though it has languished in recent years, the pipeline has been thrown back into the spotlight recently because a group of citizens has mobilized against any move to reverse the flow of the line, in order to pump oil from Alberta’s oilsands region. They say a reversal is inevitable in the new reality of world oil prices that favours the cheap transport of North American crude over shipping from Europe, Asia and South America.
Earlier this year, oil companies received permission from the Canadian government to reverse the flow of Enbridge’s Line 9B, to allow crude to flow from Alberta to the Suncor refinery in Montreal.
While there are no firm proposals being put forward, the now-former CEO of Portland Montreal Pipe Line, Larry Wilson, told a committee of the Vermont legislature last year that he would like to reverse the pipeline’s flow.
Several towns and cities along the pipeline’s route in Vermont and New Hampshire have passed resolutions against what they say is “dirty oil” from the oilsands region.
On Monday, South Portland council is expected to ratify the Clear Skies Ordinance, a zoning bylaw that would prohibit loading bulk crude onto tankers in the port. If the ordinance passes, it would effectively quash any plan to reverse the flow of the pipeline.
“The major issue is the environment,” said South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert. “The pipeline crosses a bunch of waterways, including Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water to approximately one-quarter of the population of the state of Maine. One spill would be devastating to the area.”
Proponents of the Clear Skies Ordinance say oilsands oil is also an air-pollution risk, far greater than the oil currently brought in to the port.
“You can see this high school is right up there, with their playing fields,” said Mary-Jane Ferrier, a spokeswoman for the group Protect South Portland. She was sitting in a car adjacent to a field of about 20 storage tanks belonging to Portland Montreal Pipe Line. “There’s a community centre and daycare. There’s Keeler Elementary School right at the edge of this tank farm, and there’s another big daycare at the church here. They’re all breathing whatever comes out of these tanks. If tarsands oil were in those tanks, they would be venting out much more toxic stuff. This is what the Clear Skies Ordinance is all about.”
Wearing the pale blue T-shirt that symbolizes the movement, Ferrier said what makes this fight unique is that while a city can’t have any say on the operation of a pipeline, it does have jurisdiction over air quality. That’s why South Portland is probably the only municipality along the pipeline route that could potentially stop any plans to reverse the flow.
Ferrier said air pollution in Maine is a huge concern.
“Unfortunately, Maine is east of everyone else, so we get everyone else’s pollutants from our prevailing west winds; that’s why Maine is sometimes called the nation’s tailpipe,” she said. “We don’t want to add to that. We know that our children in Maine and in South Portland have a much higher incidence of asthma than anywhere else in the nation.”
Monday’s vote caps a two-year battle by Ferrier and her group. Last year, Clear Skies proponents lost a referendum by less than 200 votes that would have banned the pipeline’s reversal. Opponents said the referendum would have been bad for the whole city’s industry.
Jalbert said this ordinance seems to be a good compromise over last year’s referendum, because it would be much easier to reverse: with a simple vote of the council, otherwise another referendum would be needed to reverse the decision.
While the council overwhelmingly supports the ordinance, Michael Pock, the lone councillor who voted against the ordinance at first reading earlier this month, said this will set a dangerous precedent for any future business because it will allow environmentalists selling “scare tactics” to take precedence over industry.
“My big thing is jobs,” he said. “We can’t tell people we’re a business-friendly city, and then tell people what to do with their business.”
He said he’s convinced Monday’s vote will be passed by the same 6-1 margin as the first reading.
Burt Russell, vice-president of operations at Sprague Energy, told the local newspaper, The Forecaster, that the energy industry is constantly evolving, and limiting crude-oil exportation could limit future development.
He said he also has concerns about the precedent this ordinance could set.
“The city concluded on its own that there was an imminent risk, and now they’ve extended that to what was initially oilsands to all crude oil,” Russell said. “That to me sends a signal that if they can do that with this product, they can do that with other projects.”
Jalbert said if the ordinance passes, he expects oil companies will sue the city. Clear Skies proponents are already soliciting donations to a fund that would pay for a legal defence.
Representatives of Portland Montreal Pipe Line declined requests for an interview.