SOUTH PORTLAND – A little more than a month after losing a battle at the polls on Election Day, tar-sands foes won the war, for now, Monday when the South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to adopt a six-month moratorium on any construction needed to load diluted bitumen onto ships at shore.

At least it seemed like an end to the war, based on the reaction of audience members, who gave the council a standing ovation immediately following the vote. That affirmation capped off a week of acclaim for the council, begun Wednesday, Dec. 11, with a workshop decision to create a draft ordinance committee charged with finding some legal means of outlawing tar sands. It was a dramatic turnaround in public reaction from the days prior to Nov. 5, when a majority of the council was openly mocked for opposing a Waterfront Protection Ordinance (WPO) designed to accomplish the same goal.

“You guys are going to be heroes, internationally. You know that, right?” said Buchanan Street resident Eben Rose at Wednesday’s workshop.

“I wanted to rush the stage because I felt you had risen to the level of rock stars,” said PJ Cragin of Smith Street, describing her reaction to creation of the draft ordinance committee, and following it up with her assessment of Monday’s moratorium vote.

“Tonight I come to support you as my new rock stars,” she said, “to support you and let you know you are doing the right thing.”

“I’m a little concerned when I hear us being called heroes and rock stars, because I’m really afraid some of us won’t be able to get out of the room because our heads are going to be so big,” joked Councilor Linda Cohen.

The moratorium is retroactive to the first workshop held on the topic, in an emergency meeting convened the day after the Nov. 5 referendum on the WPO, which went down by a narrow 192-vote margin. It expires May 6, by which time the council hopes to have new land-use regulations in place to block tar sands from coming into South Portland via a 236-mile-long underground pipeline from Montreal.

Applications are now available on the city’s webpage to serve on the three-person ad hoc committee that will draft the new zoning rules, while requests for qualifications are being taken on the site’s purchasing page for a paid facilitator to lead the group.

The council is expected to hire the facilitator, make committee appointments and set a project budget at its Jan. 6 meeting.

According to City Attorney Sally Daggett, the committee will need to complete its work by April 7 in order to shepherd any ordinance change through the system of required readings and hearings, before both the City Council and the Planning Board, prior to the May 6 expiration of the moratorium.

However, Daggett cautioned, “You can see how much public input there has been in this process.

“I think it’s a mistake to just think that whatever ordinance amendment this committee comes up with, everybody’s going to be happy with and not want to touch at City Council’s first reading,” she said. “Any timeline the City Council develops ought to plan for this process taking more than just two City Council meetings and one Planning Board hearing.”

It also may take defending against a lawsuit.

In a Dec. 3 letter to city councilors, Harry Ng, vice president and general counsel of the American Petroleum Institute, did not explicitly threaten a lawsuit, but he did say the moratorium, if passed, “would have strong legal challenges.” the institute’s opposition is based largely on the belief that banning tar sands, even if accomplished through local land-use regulations, would be an unconstitutional attempt to regulate interstate commerce.

That sentiment was echoed Monday by Chris Gillies, a product movement manager for Portland Pipe Line Corp. and the only person to speak on behalf of the petroleum industry during more than two hours of public testimony.

“We will continue to consider all of our options in this matter,” he said. “At a time when families are struggling in this economy, the moratorium sends a chilling anti-business message to us in the broader business community of the region.

“It is unfortunate that the council, particularly where there is no proposed, pending or imminent oil sands plan project, feels the need to act so rashly, without the benefit of trying to first understand the impact of the moratorium or the subject matter that it seeks to regulate,” said Gillies.

“This has been a one-sided process from the start, begun when we were presented with a fully drafted moratorium that could’ve been drafted by the pro-WPO advocates, less than 24 hours after the voters rightfully rejected a poorly thought-out proposed ordinance,” said Gillies. “Sadly, since that day, the council’s focus has been on arriving at a pre-determined conclusion, rather than on an impartial, collaborative effort for the good of South Portland.”

Still, speaker after speaker expressed concern about tar sands, often referred to by environmental group 350 Maine as “the dirtiest fuel on the planet.”

Apart from citing carcinogens that could be released into the air from chemicals – the exact mixture of which is a trade secret – added to bitumen to make the goopy substance liquid enough to pump through a pipeline before being burned off locally, speakers from South Portland and several surrounding communities pointed to recent pipeline ruptures around the country and across the globe.

In a Nov. 12 letter to the council, Portland Pipe Line attorney Matt Manahan cited several federal reports that show that those breaks were caused by external forces and not the presumed corrosiveness of tar sands inside the line. Still, the prospect of an expensive and difficult cleanup left many speakers unimpressed with Portland Pipe Line’s record of safety.

“That the pipeline has lasted more than 60 years without incident does not ensure that an incident won’t happen very, very soon,” said Christine Marshall of Sawyer Street. “The logic is pretty clear, the older it is the more chance there is for failure.”

Environmental activists first rallied locally in November 2012, when pipeline giant Enbridge filed an application with Canada’s National Energy Board to reverse the flow of one of its major lines to carry “heavy crude” oil, or tar sands out of western Canada. According to environmental news service, which posted a story the next day, “It is widely understood this filing is part of a larger oil export plan to move tar sands out of Alberta, east through Montreal and down to Maine.”

Following initial protests in Portland and in towns around Sebago Lake and along the pipeline route, a public hearing on the topic of tar sands was held in February at the South Portland Community Center. More than 400 people attended that meeting. Protect South Portland (then calling itself Concerned Citizens of South Portland) organized soon after and by June was collecting signatures for a proposed ban.

Portland Pipe Line CEO Larry Wilson has said repeatedly since February that while his company would entertain any offers to get its traffic back above 60 percent capacity, it “has no project” to reverse the flow of one of its three lines, currently laying dormant, so it can import crude oil from Montreal instead of its former use, to pump refined product north.

However, tar sands opponents have become reinvigorated by their fears, following the unanimous Dec. 6 decision by a Canadian National Assembly committee to approve the reversal of an Enbridge pipeline from Alberta to Quebec. Although still subject to final approval by Canada’s National Energy Board, the move is widely seen by local environmentalists as the first step in transporting tar sands to South Portland for shipment to international processing plants.

“Even though Portland Pipe Line Corp. says it has no tar sands plan, tar sands is on its way, so they need to pick up their pace and so do we,” said Crystal Goodrich of Highland Avenue, at last week’s council workshop.

“Tar sands is all risk and no reward for the people and environment of South Portland and Maine,” said Taryn Hallweaver, campaign director for activist group Environment Maine, speaking at Monday’s meeting. “Tar sands puts at risk our health, our air, our water. Casco Bay. Our fishing and lobstering industries. Sebago Lake, which is the drinking water supply for Greater Portland. Tar sands puts at risk our property values, our tourism economy and the climate we all share. The only reward is the financial interests of ExxonMobil, the corporate owner of Portland Pipe Line Corp.”

“Thank you for acting on what the vast majority of people in South Portland want to see, and that is no tar sands,” Hallweaver said to the council.

Only Councilor Michael Pock voted against the moratorium, calling it “one-sided against the oil companies” and an end-run on the “fair, legal vote” held on the WPO.

Still, Pock, who has publicly spoken against tar sands, said his opposition was primarily based on repeated calls by residents to bar any representative of the oil industry from serving on the draft ordinance committee.

“If the vote had gone the other way and the oil companies had said the people of South Portland cannot be represented on this committee, everybody would be screaming. So, for that reason alone I am voting against the moratorium,” he said.

Councilor Maxine Beecher praised Pock for his “courage to state his position.” The draft ordinance committee also should not be staffed with anti-tar sands environmentalists, she said.

“I don’t want them influenced by the oil people, but I don’t want you to influence them either, because then the whole democratic process is out the door,” she told the audience, which at one point was large enough to force the fire chief to order some people cleared from the council chamber room for safety considerations.

Although members of Protect South Portland have been a large and vocal component of most council meetings since June, Beecher said there are residents on the other side of the fence. Despite assertions from the group that most South Portland residents opposed tar sands and only voted against the WPO out of fear that its broad language could negatively impact a host of waterfront businesses, Beecher claimed many have told her they actually support Portland Pipe Line’s quest to boost its business.

“I’ll tell you what, you guys are quite a force,” she told audience members. “Every meeting there’s a huge group of you, and there are folks out there who are a little bit afraid of taking a position that’s a little bit different from what the majority of people want. I have heard from people who do feel strongly that it’s not so easy being on the opposite side.”

“In all the 20 years I’ve been on boards and committees, and now on the City Council, I’ve never seen so many people come out time and time and time again to meeting after meeting, regardless of how long it takes,” said Mayor Jerry Jalbert.

“You’ve made me laugh. You’ve almost made me cry,” Councilor Patti Smith told the audience. “It’s been an amazing, emotional journey.”

At Wednesday’s workshop, Portland Pipe Line treasurer Dave Cyr repeated the mantra that “we have no tar sands project” on the table, while, in a letter sent to councilors just hours before the meeting, he asked that his company be included in any moratorium talks.

“The council should reject fear and embrace an inclusive, thoughtful and deliberate committee process that allows for the introduction of expert opinions, scientific fact, and truth about a wide range of topics that will serve to educate the public and give the city the information it requires to think and plan more clearly about the future,” he wrote.

Instead, it appeared based on comments made by councilors that they already had in hand five days before voting on the moratorium all the facts they need to justify an order for new zoning rules aimed at banning tar sands – at least in an unrefined form – from South Portland.

“I’m the first to say, I don’t want unrefined tar sands here,” said Beecher.

“I do not like tar sands either, it’s a nasty thing,” said Pock.

“We need to find a way to prevent it from coming to our city,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott.

“We need to rewrite the ordinances to make sure that tar sands doesn’t come to our community,” said Smith.

“We have a responsibility to create this ordinance for the health and safety of our community,” said Councilor Tom Blake.

“I don’t think I want something that’s going to be more damaging to our environment and to our citizenry if there is a spill,” said Cohen. “There are enough things in this city already that could go wrong.”

Still, given repeated claims that a tar sands distribution point at local ports would lower property values, Cohen chided residents for laying the sin of greed solely at industry’s feet.

“We all have an economic interest in what happens with tar sands,” she said.

Finally, Cohen predicted that the American Petroleum Institute might not be the only entity to sue South Portland for stepping on federal toes in its attempt to ban tar sands from coming to the city across state and international borders. Recent fines levied against Scarborough by U.S. Fish and Wildlife regarding supposed violations of the Endangered Species Act shows who wields the real power, she said.

“We may have the federal government come after us,” said Cohen. “If they’ll go after a town for a dog killing a bird, they may come after the city of South Portland for regulating commerce.”

“There are no promises here, but I don’t want tar sands in South Portland,” she said.

Lee Smolovitch of Willow Street, one of several dozen residents to speak during last Wednesday’s South Portland City Council workshop, shows a map of the route taken by the Portland-Montreal pipeline through the Sebago Lake watershed area.  

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