October 16, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Oil guys pollute S. Portland waterfront debate

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

I can think of only two words to describe the all-out, oil-fueled offensive against South Portland’s proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance: unbelievably slick.

So slick that it’s impossible to navigate this hot-and-getting-hotter campaign without slipping on a scare tactic masquerading as a fact.

Take, for example, the flier from the deep-pocketed Working Waterfront Coalition that landed in mailboxes all over South Portland this week.

“Top Maine Economists Warn of Devastating Impact of WPO,” it blares, referring to the citizen-initiated ordinance scheduled for a citywide referendum next month.

The flier goes on to warn – actually, it flat-out predicts – that 5,600 jobs “will be ELIMINATED” throughout Maine if South Portland voters approve the ordinance on Nov. 5. What’s more, Maine families will forfeit “$252 million in lost earnings” and state and local governments will suffer from “slashed budgets” to the tune of another $30 million.

Having trouble standing up? Maybe we should back up a bit.

The proposed ordinance stems from widespread concern that the South Portland-based Portland Pipe Line Corp. might someday stop pumping crude oil to Montreal and instead become the last link in a network of pipelines carrying tar-sands crude from Alberta to tankers in Portland Harbor.

Because the federal government has jurisdiction over the actual flow of tar-sands oil, the pro-ordinance group Protect South Portland set its sights on local land-use laws to head off what it considers to be the scourge of tar-sands oil flowing all the way east to the city’s sprawling waterfront.

Specifically, the group targeted any and all activities dealing with the future loading of tankers – as opposed to the current unloading of tankers – on the South Portland side of Portland Harbor.

Enter the Working Waterfront Coalition, which is hard at work spending $275,000 in cash and in-kind donations from oil interests and their allies to essentially scare the bejesus out of South Portland voters. (Protect South Portland, by contrast, is operating on shoestring donations of just over $36,000.)

The anti-ordinance campaign begins and ends with a report released late last month by Charles Lawton, chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. and a weekly business columnist for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Lawton’s study, for which the Working Waterfront Coalition paid $15,000, focuses on what the economic impact would be if South Portland’s working waterfront were simply to disappear.

“The premise was, ‘What would be the impact of a decision by the operators of the oil terminals and pipeline to undertake an orderly shutdown of their business?’ ” Lawton explained in an interview Tuesday.

Lawton’s findings? The same set of scary statistics now embedded under the headline “Top Maine Economists Warn of Devastating Impact of WPO.”

Pretty slick, huh? One minute Lawton’s talking hypothetically about a waterfront sans workers – and the next his gloomy forecast is attached, as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise, to a “yes” vote on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.

“I’m not uncomfortable with what I delivered,” said Lawton. Still, he conceded, “I can’t say how it’s been represented in ads or handouts or fliers or whatever.”

Of course he can’t. That would be the job of Dan Demeritt, campaign manager for the Working Waterfront Coalition, who sees nothing wrong with taking what Lawton actually said and ... watch your footing there ... running with it.

“We don’t believe it’s a leap to say that the waterfront will go away if the WPO is the law of the land,” said Demeritt, who also writes a column (who doesn’t?) for this newspaper.

Demeritt’s right – it’s not a leap. It’s an interplanetary expedition.

To be sure, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance deserves an informed debate – starting with whether it would achieve its intended outcome (no tar-sands oil in South Portland) without putting other commercial and industrial interests at undue risk.

(Continued on page 2)

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