By Leslie Bridgers
RAYMOND - Code Enforcement Officer Chris Hanson eyed the door of the selectmen's chambers every time it opened, counting each person who came into the room -- something he doesn't often have to do.
The room was nine people short of capacity just before the start of the meeting Tuesday evening, when it would become the latest battleground for the Portland Pipe Line Corp. and environmentalists trying to prevent the company from carrying so-called tar sands oil through the Sebago Lake watershed.
The owner of the Portland-to-Montreal pipeline hasn't come forward with plans to start transporting the heavy form of petroleum from Canada, but admits that it might want to in the future.
Oil executives say tar sands oil is no more likely to spill than what now runs through the pipeline and the company, which touts its good safety record, is well-prepared to deal with spills.
Activists, who say tar sands oil is more harmful to the environment than the crude oil that currently runs through the pipeline, are trying to get the attention of the Department of State, and ultimately President Obama, to tighten regulations over a potential project.
But last week, they were focused on the Raymond Board of Selectmen.
The cities and towns along the pipeline have become part of a multinational battle over the use of vast tar sands oil deposits in the Canadian province of Alberta.
Environmentalists, including many who say development of the oil will accelerate global climate change, are trying to prevent any use of pipelines in Maine and elsewhere to export the oil.
Since the summer, representatives from advocacy groups Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine have held forums at public libraries and meetings with elected officials from the 12 towns along the pipeline's path stretching from Portland Harbor to the Canadian border.
More recently, a formal resolution has been presented to select-boards and town and city councils, which local residents -- with the support of the statewide environmental groups -- are asking their towns and cities to adopt in opposition to tar sands oil flowing through Maine.
In Casco, the resolution was put on the agenda of a special townwide meeting Jan. 12, and all but a few of the 50-some residents in attendance raised their hands in favor of adopting it.
Although pipeline company executives were aware of the vote, they didn't attend the town meeting, said Town Manager David Morton. But a few weeks later, when the resolution landed on a town meeting warrant in Bethel, they decided they wanted a say.
Company officials, along with the executive director of the New England Petroleum Council and a representative of the Canadian Consulate in Boston, showed up at the Jan. 30 special town meeting, but the question was called before they got a chance to speak and the resolution was adopted with overwhelming support, according to The Bethel Citizen.
"It all happened very fast," said Town Manager Jim Doar. "I'm not sure it's been something that's been widely discussed, and I think we will probably revisit it."
The resolution is on the warrant for town meetings March 2 in Waterford and June 11 in Harrison, where "it's probably the biggest thing ... that's going to bring voters out," said Town Manager Bud Finch.
LARGER COMMUNITIES HESITATING
Larger towns and cities along the pipeline, however, haven't been as quick to vote on the resolution.
The Windham Town Council heard a presentation from Environment Maine at a special meeting Jan. 29. Representatives from Portland Pipe Line showed up to the meeting and offered another perspective on the project during the public comment period.
The council has talked about having the pipeline company come back to give its own more formal presentation, but a meeting hasn't been scheduled, said Town Manager Tony Plante.
The City Council in South Portland, the location of the pipeline's terminus, is tentatively scheduled to discuss tar sands oil at a workshop March 11.
In Portland, the City Council has taken a different approach to the issue and is considering banning the purchase of tar sands oil for city operations.
But when the council was scheduled to vote on the policy, city staff couldn't answer questions from the councilors about how it would work and what the financial impact would be, so it was sent back to a subcommittee for further review.
Councilor David Marshall, who chairs that committee, said he expects the council to reconsider the policy change at a meeting in April.
VIDEO SHOWS SPILL IN MICHIGAN
The most recent face-off between oil executives and environmental activists was last week in Raymond, in a small room with low ceilings where there was barely room to stand.
Steve Catir, a Raymond resident who was appointed to the town's conservation commission at the same meeting, played a silent movie on a projection screen that showed an aerial shot of a slick black stream weaving through backyards and patches of trees.
It was Michigan's Kalamazoo River after a July 2010 oil spill that sickened hundreds of people and thousands of animals.
The oil was from tar sands and the faulty pipeline is owned by Enbridge -- the Canadian company that environmentalists fear will transport the tar sands oil from Ontario to Montreal, where it would connect to the pipeline to South Portland.
"Imagine this occurred at Panther Run or the Crooked River," Catir said, referring to local waterways.
Selectmen Joe Bruno questioned how it would be different from an oil spill along the pipeline that's been pumping crude oil under the town for more than 60 years.
Pipelines carrying tar sands oil spill three times more often, said Emily Figdor, executive director of Environment Maine. And when it does spill, it sinks in water and is harder to clean up, she said,
Not true, the oil company officials countered. The tar sands oil is no more corrosive than what's already running through the pipeline, and the company is equipped to clean spills of any kind, they said.
Larry Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Portland Pipe Line, used the projection screen to show the company's safety awards and pointed to a handful of local employees of the pipeline who were sitting in the audience.
"The demands have changed," Wilson said, talking about the challenges of the oil industry. "We're trying very desperately to maintain the viability of the pipeline and the viability of our jobs."
Bruno said he wouldn't want to risk the quality of the water in Raymond, but didn't see a good reason to punish a company that wasn't involved with the oil spill in the video. "I see both sides of this," he said.
The selectmen voted to table a vote on the resolution until their next meeting, on March 5.
Regardless of whether the entire cast of characters returns to Raymond, they're sure to meet again soon.
Ted O'Meara, a spokesman for Portland Pipe Line, said the company has always maintained open communications with the towns through which the pipeline runs.
"Clearly, now there are specific (meeting) agenda items that speak to their operations and they want to be there," he said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at