April 24, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Lobbying for tar sands oil is pretty slick

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Ask, as the saying goes, and you shall receive.

Push, on the other hand, and Triss Critchfield will push back.

"I just don't like dishonesty," Critchfield said Tuesday. "And it's been years since I experienced such a blatant push poll."

It happened on Saturday. The phone rang in Critchfield's home in South Portland and the woman on the other end asked if she'd like to participate in a poll about the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line ... and oil from tar sands ... and reversing the flow of the 236-mile underground conduit between Portland and Montreal to help get crude from the vast reserves in western Canada to tankers in Portland Harbor.

Fire away, replied Critchfield.

Question 1: Was she familiar with the phrase "Canadian tar sands?"

"Yes," replied Critchfield.

Question 2: Did she favor or oppose extracting oil from them and shipping it, via pipelines, across North America and down through Maine?

"Oppose."

That's when things got interesting.

"She began asking questions like, 'If you knew that transporting oil through the pipeline was safer because this, that and the other thing, would it change your level of opposition?'" recalled Critchfield. "That's when I realized, 'Uh-oh, I think I know which side commissioned this poll.'"

Meaning?

"It wasn't a poll just to see how you feel right now about the pipeline or the issue," Critchfield recalled. "It had an objective."

So Critchfield confronted the pollster.

"You know, this is sounding more like a push poll to me than an actual poll," Critchfield said, referring to the common tactic in which political campaigning masquerades as scientific research.

"No," the caller quickly countered. "This is not a push poll."

That's when Critchfield hung up.

If operators of the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line are to be believed, no actual plan exists to turn what they call their "asset" into an outlet for crude oil squeezed from massive underground sand deposits in faraway Alberta.

Mind you, they readily admit they wouldn't mind if there was such a project. But at the risk of being repetitious, there currently is no such project.

All of which would sound a lot more convincing if not for all the politicking going on -- from home telephones all over Maine to the Capitol Hill offices of Maine's congressional delegation.

Last weekend's poll was conducted, according to Critchfield's caller ID, by Opinion Search -- a Canadian public research firm with offices in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

And who hired Opinion Search? Good question.

"Unfortunately, we can't comment on our client surveys," replied Opinion Search spokeswoman Janette Niwa when asked Tuesday who paid for the poll.

Hmm ... maybe it was the pipeline folks?

"I have no problem telling you that no one has been authorized by Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to conduct a poll on our behalf -- or even to use our name," said Larry Wilson, president and CEO of the South Portland-based pipeline company, when contacted by phone Tuesday.

That brings us to the American Petroleum Institute, which recently hired Dan Demeritt, a Maine political consultant (and columnist for this newspaper), to handle its public relations in this neck of the woods.

"We don't really discuss our polling strategy, so I can't really help you out there," said Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman at the institute's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In short, fellow Mainers, someone out there seeks our support for running tar sands crude down a pipeline that passes uncomfortably close to Sebago Lake -- a prospect that has already drawn formal opposition from the towns of Bethel, Waterford, Casco and Raymond.

But who that someone might be, and why they're trying to nudge public opinion in favor of a plan that purportedly doesn't even exist, is apparently none of our business.

(Continued on page 2)

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