The manner in which oil interests defeated the Waterfront Protection Ordinance may not serve them well going forward.
As the victorious Greek King Pyrrhus surveyed the battlefield of Asculum in Southern Italy in 279 B.C. he counted the depressing number of his soldiers and commanders who lay dead at the hands of his Roman foes and made a statement later immortalized by the historian Plutarch: “One more such victory, and we shall be undone.”
I was reminded of the idiom of the Pyrrhic victory when I learned the results of the tar sands referendum in South Portland on Tuesday. The anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign was successful in defeating the initiative to prevent the importation and processing of tar sands on the South Portland waterfront by just 192 votes. The way in which they succeeded at the ballot box, however, may have lost them the larger fight.
Big Oil made a strategic assessment early in the campaign that they couldn’t win if the debate was about tar sands. Voters are appalled by the idea of bitumen from Alberta, diluted with a host of noxious chemicals, being pumped through their community and risking spills that are incredibly difficult to clean up due to the density and viscosity of the oil. They also hate the idea of new smokestacks burning off this chemical cocktail on their waterfront and are troubled by the fact that tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest energy sources on the planet, producing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude.
With this in mind, oil interests decided to attempt to make the debate about what they claimed were potential unintended consequences of the ordinance itself. Instead of trying to make a case for tar sands oil, their signs read “don’t sink the port” and their ads and mailers insinuated that side-effects of the regulations would hurt everyone from fishermen to firefighters.
They also denied their previous plans to import tar sands oil, despite their own proposals in both Maine and Canada to do just that. Portland Pipeline Company had even renewed its state permit to build tar sands infrastructure in South Portland just last year, but during the campaign it decided to make a show of surrendering that environmental permit in an attempt to convince voters to reject the ban.
Basically, they all but admitted that tar sands oil is awful and went out of their way to assure voters it wouldn’t be piped through their town, regardless of the referendum’s outcome.
They backed this manipulative message with a huge war chest. An accounting of campaign contributions by the Press Herald in October and financial disclosure forms filed since then indicate the “No” side spent more than $650,000 on their campaign to influence the voters in South Portland, money flowing almost entirely from Big Oil. To put that in perspective, Gov. LePage raised a total of just $177,721 for his entire successful statewide primary campaign in 2010.
In other words, Big Oil spent $152 for every vote it received. Instead of filling up their mailboxes with slick fliers and their voicemails with robocalls, they could have bought every single “No” voter their own Kindle Fire.
The “No” side used this money to pay a team of lobbyists, lawyers and PR professionals, including former LePage communications director Dan Demeritt. They also hired Republican-linked political consulting firms from as far afield as Virginia, Maryland, Iowa and Minnesota.
On the other side, the anti-tar sands campaign had a ton of grassroots support (enough volunteers to knock on 16,000 doors) and the backing of several state environmental groups, but in the end it wasn’t enough and they were drowned in a sea of cash.
But all the money and political influence in the world (of which, admittedly, Big Oil controls a great deal) isn’t going to be enough to reverse the damage the “No” side did to the prospects for tar sands oil in the region with their own electorally-minded messaging. After spending so much time and money claiming they aren’t planning that kind of development, they can’t now change their minds start piping in bitumen.
Now that the electoral fight is over, the people of South Portland can come together and work on the issue, building on the agreement against tar sands that was unintentionally fostered by Big Oil’s own campaign. They can design specific, consensus regulations that will protect their town and help to safeguard our state. In fact, that work has already begun. Less than 24 hours after the vote, the South Portland City Council was already considering a moratorium banning the importation of tar sands oil.