August 2, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Many have a stake in South Portland tar sands oil debate

Voter approval of an ordinance to keep the oil out of the city may have many other ramifications.

Residents of South Portland needed 950 signatures to qualify an ordinance that would prohibit what they call "dirty tar-sands oil" from Canada to be pumped by petroleum-handling businesses in the city -- and got 3,779.

So the ordinance, which is, to put it mildly, controversial, appears set for a citywide vote in November, after reviews by the Planning Board and City Council.

That's not where it ends, however. The issue has an impact that goes well beyond the borders of one community or one state -- or, for that matter, one nation.

The debate is being framed as whether or not high-viscosity oil extracted from Alberta's Athabascan tar sands is exceptionally hazardous to the environment in its extraction, handling and processing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says it isn't, as noted in this space a few weeks ago.

However, that hasn't stopped a vocal group of activists from pushing their view by every means possible, including this proposed ordinance.

The activists say they are responding to the idea that the Portland Pipe Line Corp.'s Portland-to-Montreal pipeline, which now ships imported crude to Canadian refineries, could be "reversed" to send Athabascan oil to tankers here for export.

But that idea, while raised a few years ago, has never been formally proposed -- although the recent disaster in Quebec involving oil transported by rail has put the necessity of finding safer methods of handling it on the public's mind.

The issue is wrapped up in other debates, too, including President Obama's dithering over building the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

While the president recently said the project would only create a few dozen permanent jobs, 8,000 construction jobs hang in the balance -- and the oil will be processed by industry workers here, not in China, which is Canada's other potential customer.

So Canada will extract the oil, no matter what.

But what about transporting it? According to news accounts, "The proposed ordinance would effectively ban any future reversal of the pipeline by using zoning laws to strictly define only the unloading of petroleum products as an acceptable use."

It would "also would bar the expansion of current petroleum facilities or the construction of new ones -- a provision that detractors say would unintentionally ban a host of other permitted activities, such as the distribution of gasoline and heating oil, or the refueling of boats at local docks or marinas."

Supporters disagree, saying the proposal is "narrowly tailored, and aligned with the city's long-term comprehensive plan, and reflects the public's goals."

We'll probably find out about that last claim in November. In the meantime, business owners and industry groups have promised a full-bore "educational" campaign giving their side of the issue. If the ordinance does pass, it will likely end up in the courts.

However, if this measure is adopted and survives legal scrutiny, it appears possible, if not likely, that it will make it harder to get petroleum products here -- and therefore drive up the price of fuel oil and gasoline.

And not only for residents of South Portland, but for every Maine community served by the city's distributors.

That means that residents of many other communities have a substantial stake in the outcome of this vote, and should make their voices heard in the debate about it.

The fact that 4,000 people signed petitions may seem large in the context of a citywide vote, but the even more germane fact is that how it comes out could affect 400,000 Mainers, or even many more.

Those opposed to fossil fuel use often couch their opposition in moral terms, speaking of combating environmental hazards as essential to justice and equity.

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