January 24

South Portland council selects oil sands committee

The three-member panel includes an attorney and two environmental specialists.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The South Portland City Council on Wednesday selected three volunteers who will develop an ordinance barring the importation of Canadian oil sands into the city.

The members are Michael Conathan, Russel B. Pierce Jr. and David Critchfield.

Conathan, who was the highest rated of the candidates, is a South Portland resident and the director of Ocean Policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress. He has worked with a handful of Republican lawmakers, including former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

In a phone interview Thursday, Conathan reiterated his career-long commitment of pursuing economic and environmental priorities that do not sacrifice the health of natural resources for economic gain. He said he hopes to craft an ordinance that ensures the continued operation of the city’s working waterfront, but that prevents the potential “emerging use.”

Conathan expects a legal challenge to whatever the committee produces, but said that threat is always present when crafting legislation.

“I don’t think the American Petroleum Institute is going to love anything that this committee comes up with, but I think that’s not our job,” Conathan said, of the petroleum group that funded opposition to a previous version of the anti-oil sands law. “Our job is to represent the citizens of South Portland and provide the council with the expertise and the ordinance that they’ve asked for.”

Critchfield, who deals regularly with environmental regulations in his professional life at the environmental risk firm EMSOURCE, said the committee’s first task is to clarify their charter from the City Council.

“(I) think it will be very helpful for the committee to see eye to eye on our mission, then get to work,” he said. “We’ll have to explain and defend what we come up with before (the) City Council, and they’ll vote on it.”

The sole attorney on committee, Portland-based Russell B. Pierce Jr., did not return a call seeking comment.

Committee members were selected from a dozen applicants. City councilors ranked each candidate in order of preference, and the three candidates most often preferred by the greatest number of councilors were offered the position.

The future of oil-handling in South Portland was the major issue in local elections in November and has remained a divisive topic in local politics since then.

Voters in South Portland were asked to vote up or down on a controversial ordinance designed to bar so-called tar sands, also known as oil sands, from being handled through the city’s port. Oil sands are a mixture of sand, sticky raw petroleum, and water.

The debate was sparked by residents who submitted thousands of signatures advocating for the passage of the ordinance. Critics, especially those connected to the waterfront and backed by national petroleum interests, said the ordinance would have unintended consequences, such as preventing future development along the city’s port and forcing the closure of local businesses.

After the ordinance failed in a narrow vote, the City Council passed a development moratorium, buying the city time to craft a permanent ordinance banning the substance.

Traditionally, oil tankers have offloaded their cargo in South Portland, either for use locally or to be shipped elsewhere. Since the 1940s, the Portland Pipe Line Corp. has pumped crude oil from its terminals in South Portland through a 236-mile underground pipeline that leads to refineries in Montreal. But the need for that service has waned in recent years, leading the pipeline corporation to explore reversing the flow.

In such a scenario, South Portland would become an export terminal for oil sands from Alberta. The provincial government estimates there are about 170 billion proven barrels of the crude waiting to be extracted.

But critics say the substance is costly and inefficient to mine, dangerous to ship through pipelines, and accelerates global warming because it is difficult to use to manufacture salable products. Locally, critics say chemicals burned off during the handling of tar sands oil are harmful to breathe and that a spill in nearby Casco Bay or in Sebago Lake would trigger an ecological disaster.

On Thursday, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a study it commissioned that predicts that approval of tar sands pipelines such as the Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline connecting Alberta to Texas, would mean oil-sands could be exported to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico and distributed to customers in New England by 2020. The study, performed by Hart Energy, estimates that at present, less than one percent of petroleum products consumed in New England come from so-called tar sands oil.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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