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.

The powers that be – including a 4-2 majority on the Planning Board and a five-member City Council majority – argue that the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, as written, conflicts with the city’s comprehensive plan.

In a letter they magically produced this week without holding a single meeting as defined by Maine’s Freedom of Access law, the five city councilors went on to warn that the ordinance “can have a negative effect on our working waterfront.”

Not so, argue four Maine attorneys who specialize in environmental law and wrote a letter last week to Mayor Tom Blake and the City Council on behalf of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“Suggesting that the ordinance would have broad negative impacts on existing waterfront businesses is an exaggeration and not credible,” wrote Russell Pierce, Jr., Philip Bartlett II, Jeffrey Pidot and Orlando Delogu. “Petroleum businesses whose primary use relates to unloading petroleum from boats will continue to enjoy the existing uses that are permitted right now.”

Back to the slippery side – represented this time by Burt Russell, vice president of operations for Sprague Energy.

Russell, whose company owns and operates a petroleum-products terminal in South Portland, said in an interview Tuesday that Sprague has already “canceled” a half-finished, $1.5 million pipeline upgrade for fear that the ordinance, if passed, would render it illegal.

Two nits worth picking here:

First, nothing Sprague does involves the loading of vessels in Portland Harbor. Thus, its decision to scrap the project appears at best to be an overreaction to a proposed ordinance that prohibits no such thing – and at worst another one of those slick scare tactics aimed at getting out the “no” vote.

Second, when pressed on his use of the word “canceled,” Russell backtracked to “suspended pending the November vote.” (“I guess it’s semantics,” he said.)

Color me skeptical, but I’ll bet that new Sprague pipeline gets finished no matter what happens two weeks from Tuesday.

The point here, good citizens of South Portland, is that the oil guys are asking you to buy something that’s as far from the truth as those Alberta tar sands are from Bug Light.

The truth is that South Portland is, was and will continue to be a major offloading point for heating oil, gasoline and other petroleum products for two obvious reasons: It has the infrastructure, and it sits on one of the best deep-water harbors on the East Coast.

All of which will go “poof” in just “a few years,” as Demeritt puts it, over a zoning law that has nothing to do with those decades-old investments?

Don’t look now, folks, but slick just dissolved into stupid.

This story was updated at 12:11 p.m. to correct the type of oil, crude, that might someday stop pumping to Montreal.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

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