SOUTH PORTLAND —Opponents of a waterfront zoning change going before city voters in November say its passage would lead to a shutdown of the wholesale oil industry in the port, the loss of 5,600 jobs and higher heating oil bills for homes throughout the state.
The Working Waterfront Coalition released an economic impact report on Monday showing the potential losses in sales, tax revenues and jobs if the industry ceases operation in South Portland. One oil importer says it has already put a hold on an expansion project because of the possibility the ordinance could pass.
The group behind the referendum said the impact numbers are impressive – but irrelevant to the debate about the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance. That’s because the assumption that it would shut down businesses is unfounded, said Rob Sellin, the community outreach coordinator for Protect South Portland.
“We don’t see any threat at all to their existing business,” he said.
The Nov. 5 referendum grew out of opposition to the exportation of Canadian tar sands oil, which critics say would speed up climate change and present other environmental threats. Oil industry representatives argue that the crude from Canada is no more dangerous than other crude, and offers an alternative to reliance on oil from the Middle East.
Supporters of the South Portland ballot question say the proposed limits on loading ships and expanding petroleum-based businesses are aimed narrowly at preventing any future exportation of Canadian tar-sands oil through the city’s waterfront, a terminus of the Portland-Montreal pipeline.
The proposal would not prevent businesses from conducting maintenance and improvement projects, according to Sellin.
Sprague Energy has a different interpretation of the ordinance, however, and a company executive said Monday it has halted a half-finished $1.5 million pipeline replacement project unrelated to tar sands oil. Burton Russell, the company’s vice president of operations, said the ordinance is retroactive to May and, if it is passed, any work completed since then would have to be torn up.
Members of the Working Waterfront Coalition say the restrictions are written broadly, in order to forward an agenda to replace the petroleum businesses with clean energy companies.
The report released Monday did not address whether or not passage of the ordinance would force businesses to shut down, only what would happen if they did shut down. Economist Charles Lawton, who conducted the study, said he was asked to provide the likely economic impact if the terminals and pipelines in South Portland stopped operating.
“The whole report is based on a false assumption,” said Sellin.
The Working Waterfront Coalition paid about $15,000 for the study, said campaign manager Dan Demeritt.
Both Lawton and Demeritt are columnists for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
The report looks at the ripple effect of closing businesses on South Portland’s waterfront.
First, there is the businesses’ direct spending and employment –$38 million annually and 85 jobs, the report says. Then, there’s the indirect effect on their vendors — $26 million, or the equivalent of 250 jobs.
The report supposes that, if the water-based oil distribution system disappears, it will be replaced by trucks and highways, creating expenses that would be passed on to the consumer. Over 10 years, the report said, the state would lose 5,600 jobs, a reduction of $252 million in annual earnings.
The Working Waterfront Coalition released the report at a news conference Monday morning at Sprague’s South Portland terminal. Campaign supporters spoke, as waterfront workers, many in hard hats, stood behind them holding signs opposing the ordinance.
They called the ordinance “reckless” and accused the opposition of using scare tactics to garner support.
Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said the report served to “separate the emotion from the fact, the fear from the truth.”
Last week, backers of the proposed ordinance released a list of 216 South Portland businesses that they said support the restrictions.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at