PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Since 1870, Sprague Energy’s employees have worked hard to make their company a responsible community member everywhere it operates.

This work requires considerable investment in training, equipment and readiness to comply with federal, state and local regulations designed to protect the safety of employees, communities and the environment. It also requires a willingness to participate in local government and speak out even when it is unpopular to do so.

The Clear Skies Ordinance under consideration for approval by the South Portland City Council was born out of a flawed process, sets the stage for continued divisiveness and forecloses on an opportunity for the city before all points of view can be heard.

Thanks to the Draft Ordinance Committee, we now know what kind of language might be inserted into city zoning ordinances to attempt blocking all crude oil loading onto marine vessels. We still don’t know whether crude oil loading should be blocked, though, because the debate hasn’t occurred yet.

On Monday night, the City Council should act in the entire city’s best interest by not passing the Clear Skies Ordinance, and it should begin engaging all stakeholders and regulators in a discussion of whether or not crude oil loading could be done safely at all.

Zoning ordinances approved by city councilors on major land use cases without input from all sides guarantee a poor outcome for everyone because it assumes that those seven councilors possess enough knowledge to determine fact from fiction and weigh risks accordingly.

A fair discussion, or at least a group appointed to hear each side of the debate, is warranted if concerns remain high after a citizen referendum is held but defeated by the voters.

Unfortunately, the City Council responded to concerns not by requesting to learn more, or appointing a group to evaluate pros and cons, but by making a unilateral decision onwhat was best for the city and creating the Draft Ordinance Committee with a specific charter to ban the bulk loading of oil sands crude. It is important to understand that the Draft Ordinance Committee was not a fact-finding exercise, but a means to the end that councilors preordained.

Approval by the City Council of the draft ordinance will only set the stage for a more divided community. According to Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz’s videotaped interview with Mayor Gerard Jalbert, the council is preparing for the prospect of a legal challenge. Jalbert mentioned possibly requesting donations from across the country on environmental group websites to pay legal defense fees.

What if the fees were more than the donations? What if the city lost, and damages were awarded? Who would pay the millions of dollars of that outcome? Taxpayers.

If the distraction and cost of a lawsuit are not harmful enough, they pale in comparison to the precedent the ordinance sets for City Council actions and business health going forward. Businesses survive and grow only when they can adapt to new realities in the markets they serve.

If the City Council unilaterally bans potential land uses in the name of public safety without first conducting an assessment of risks by appropriate public officials and agencies whose very mission serves that purpose, what confidence can any business owner have that the council will not believe a potential product of theirs should be surgically banned with a zoning ordinance?

Why should the public have any confidence in federal and state safety and environmental authorities if the city never seeks their input on important issues? Absent fact-based debate, fear and hyperbole dominate the discussion and divide communities.

There are currently no applications or permits on file to load crude oil onto marine vessels in South Portland. The City Council should not enact the South Portland Clear Skies Ordinance, but rather extend the moratorium – and use the time to engage in a risk-based discussion with stakeholders and regulators.

We believe there is still a means other than the courts to resolve this conflict to the satisfaction of all interested parties.

— Special to the Press Herald