On Monday, the South Portland City Council will review an initiative proposed by local residents to prevent the transportation of tar sands oil through a pipeline that terminates next to Bug Light and the processing of the substance at local waterfront facilities.
The council will likely choose to send the proposed ordinance out for a public vote. When that happens, be prepared for one of the most hard-fought local referendums in Maine history.
On one side is a group of grass-roots activists called Concerned Citizens of South Portland. They have shown the ability to organize effectively and were able to bring more than a hundred volunteers together to gather more than 3,000 signatures to bring the ordinance forward.
They also have the support of statewide environmental and public health groups and much of the political establishment in SoPo. As Mayor Tom Blake put it recently, “If we allow this, I feel we are jeopardizing the health and safety of our citizens.”
On the other side is one of the most powerful political entities in the world: Big Oil. The fossil fuel industry spends hundreds of millions every year on lobbyists, contributions to politicians, publicity campaigns and political think tanks in order to influence government and maintain their economic position.
Six of the seven largest corporations in the world by annual revenue are oil companies, and ExxonMobil claims all five of the top spots for most profits by a single company in a single year, all during the last decade. It’s a vast machine of influence that they will likely bring to bear on this campaign.
Maine has a history of out-of-state companies spending big to influence local votes, even when they have little or no actual effect.
Corporate polluter Mal- linckrodt, for instance, spent heavily to defeat a nonbinding referendum on mercury cleanup in Orrington in 2010. In Portland, in 2001, insurance companies spent almost $400,000 in an attempt to defeat a symbolic vote in favor of universal, single-payer health care.
In South Portland, the vote isn’t just symbolic. The ordinance could place a big hurdle in front of a potentially very profitable plan to export tar sands oil. You can bet that oil interests will engage heavily to defeat it. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobbying group, has already hired Dan Demeritt, a columnist for this newspaper and a former former LePage administration spokesperson, to handle local public relations, and tar sands supporters have reportedly conducted at least one message-testing public opinion poll.
They’ve also already been able to influence the initiative process, successfully stalling the council vote for two weeks with objections to a misplaced comma in one version of the ordinance.
Local tar sands opponents have their own reasons to fight this campaign. Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest energy sources on the planet. Its extraction and processing produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional oil.
Once it is mined from the sands of Alberta, the resulting bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter and getting it to flow through a pipeline often requires the addition of a cocktail of other chemical additives.
When a pipeline breaks and this diluted bitumen spills, it can be difficult to clean up, especially from lakes and waterways. Unlike other transportable oil products, bitumen sinks in water.
A review of figures from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows that a spill of tar sands oil along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan was the most costly in U.S. history, at a price of more than $29,000 per barrel compared to the average $2,000-per-barrel cleanup costs of other spills.
Bringing in tar sands oil would likely also require new vapor combustion smokestacks on the South Portland waterfront, increasing air pollution.
Supporters of the initiative will be working to make these concerns known to voters with their grass-roots campaign. Their opponents will likely be using their financial advantage to repeat a message of local economic benefit from tar sands oil, while raising the specter of potential unintended consequences of the ordinance. We won’t know which tactics will be more successful until the vote itself.
One solace to those who worry about the corrosive influence of big money in local politics is that, unlike in many smaller towns, South Portland is big enough that a provision of state law will require all spending on the referendum be publicly reported. It will be interesting to see what those reports reveal.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at: