July 26, 2013

The tar sands fight in our backyard

Opponents of tar sands oil flowing into South Portland have awakened a powerful foe: an industry that says a pre-emptive city ordinance threatens its existing regional investment.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The debate over whether so-called Canadian tar sands oil will ever flow through South Portland has just gotten stickier.

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An oil tanker unloads at a terminal facility in South Portland on Thursday. The city’s terminals made Portland Harbor the second largest oil port on the East Coast in 2012.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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A vehicle from Fielding Oil fills up with heating oil at the Sprague Energy terminal in South Portland on Thursday.

Additional Photos Below


As written, the proposed anti-tar sands ordinance in South Portland would implement a few key changes to current zoning law:

Stipulate that petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities in the shipyard district would be allowed for the "unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland" only.

Ban the enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities, or facilities for the storing and handling of petroleum and/or petroleum products in the shipyard district; or within a 250-foot strip of land extending inland from the highest annual tide mark in waterfront commercial zones. In a memo to Planning Board members, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey called this provision "a major departure from existing policy."

Install a blanket ban on construction, installation, or development of any new facility on an existing pier in the shipyard district.

Define "expansion" as "construction, reconstruction or alteration of any existing facility to change the function or capacity of such facilities; construction of any new combustion units, stacks, vapor recovery systems, equipment, structure, or machinery for transportation or storage of petroleum, including any pumping, distribution or other facility for loading tankers or other ships instead of unloading ships."

Exempt the new prohibitions from being waived or the subject of variances unless such waivers or variances are necessary to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, fire codes or pollution control regulations.

Anti-tar sands activists and residents say a proposed city ordinance is a narrowly tailored law designed to squelch the possibility of Portland Pipe Line Corp. ever using its 236-mile underground pipeline to bring the crude oil from Canada to Portland Harbor.

But some powerful opponents emerged this week to say the proposal would affect oil terminals and businesses that have nothing to do with the tar sands conflict.

With voters expected to decide in November, the campaign has already developed signs of a complex legal dispute with nuanced interpretations of zoning law and court precedent.

And it's clear now that tar sands opponents have a powerful foe.

South Portland's six large oil terminals generate about $1.6 million in annual tax revenue for the city and represent about 2.7 percent of the city's tax base.

The standoff in South Portland could play a key role in an international struggle over Canada's ability to export the crude oil that is abundant in the tar sands of Alberta.

The Portland Pipe Line is seen as one of the possible ways for Canada to export the oil, although the company that owns it has not made a proposal to do so.

Opponents say tar sands crude is an especially risky oil because it is sticky and corrosive and that its export into the global market will accelerate climate change.

Petroleum industry representatives deny that the oil poses any greater risk of leaking or spilling than the crude oil that already flows through the Portland Pipe Line from South Portland to Montreal. The pipeline's operators also point to a strong safety record in South Portland and all along the pipeline.

Tar sands opponents in Maine, including many who held a rally Thursday night in Portland, see the proposed South Portland ordinance as a potentially decisive effort. The stakes also appear to be high for the pipeline and the city's large oil industry.

At a South Portland Planning Board meeting Tuesday, advocates and opponents of the pre-emptive ban fundamentally disagreed about the meaning of the measure's language and how those words may be brought to bear on existing businesses that have little or nothing to do with tar sands oil or the pipeline.

The Concerned Citizens of South Portland, which wrote and proposed the measure, say that existing businesses that pump, store and handle petroleum and petroleum-related products will be allowed to continue to operate as they have been. They would only be prohibited from expanding in any way that would allow them to accept tar sands shipments.

"Anyone familiar with the zoning process would expect (city) staff to step forward and explain to the board that all existing uses can continue," said Natalie West, an attorney for the group who helped author the proposed law. "Changes in zoning laws do not 'shut down' existing uses."

Opponents of the proposal say the law's language is overly broad, stands at cross-purposes with existing long-term land-use plans, and would hamstring a variety of unrelated businesses from updating equipment and expanding their operations along sections of the waterfront, eventually hampering their ability to stay afloat.

"What are these people trying to do?" said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, an industry trade group that has created a ballot initiative committee to oppose the measure. "They don't want to bring in Canadian oil sands, so their purpose then becomes, 'let's not allow anybody to do anything new on the waterfront.'"

In Py's interpretation, the ordinance would bar a petroleum-handling company from even fixing broken equipment or installing new technology that would carry out an existing and permitted use, such as off-loading crude oil.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Unloading arms remove oil for storage from the oil tanker HS Electra at Portland Pipe Line’s pier facility in South Portland in March. Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s $750,000 tax bill made it the city’s sixth largest taxpayer in 2012.


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