SOUTH PORTLAND — The city has prevailed in the lawsuit brought by the Portland Pipe Line Corp., ending more than six years of federal litigation over a local law that blocks the company from reversing the flow of its World War II-era oil pipeline to bring crude from Canada to Maine.

The company gave up the fight Thursday, filing an agreement with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to voluntarily dismiss its appeal of a previous federal court judgment that upheld the city’s Clear Skies Ordinance.

Passed by the City Council in 2014, the ordinance prohibits bulk loading of crude oil into marine tanker vessels on the city’s waterfront, and its survival of federal court scrutiny is seen as precedent-setting by many.

“I applaud the decision by Portland Pipe Line, which will allow both them and our community to move forward,” Mayor Misha Pride said in a written statement. “I am proud of our community for having the fortitude to stand up for what we believed to be right, and to invest the time and financial resources necessary to defend ourselves. That effort has now finally paid off.”

The dismissal follows the city’s victories in U.S. District Court in Portland and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, as well as an amicus brief filed by the Biden administration last month supporting the city’s stance that the ordinance doesn’t violate the Constitution, federal laws or foreign policies.

Under the terms of the two-page agreement, the company and the city will pay their own court costs, and the company gave up the right to pursue the appeal further in the future.

The city has spent $2.8 million fighting the lawsuit, including $174,529 in private donations from residents, organizations and others. The city is represented by Foley Hoag of Boston and Jensen Baird of Portland.

“We commend the City Council for having the courage and commitment to defend its principles and its Clear Skies Ordinance against an aggressive challenge,” said Jonathan Ettinger, a partner at Foley Hoag and lead attorney on the case. “This case confirms that state and local governments may exercise important police powers to regulate oil pipelines and terminals to protect air quality, public health, scenic vistas and quality of life.”

Chris Gillies, president of the pipeline company, said its parent company decided to voluntarily dismiss the appeal because it has no current plans to reverse the flow of the pipeline to bring crude from Montreal to South Portland.

Fuel tanks next to the Ferry Village neighborhood near the South Portland waterfront in 2015. A city ordinance now blocks Portland Pipe Line Corp. from reversing the flow of its pipeline to bring crude oil from Canada to Maine.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Under the previous ownership there had been some thought to reverse the direction of flow of crude oil,” Gillies said in an email. “However, since 2020 when Suncor Energy became the sole owner of Portland Pipe Line’s parent, the decision was made to continue to operate the pipeline as it operates today.”

Rachel Burger, founder of Protect South Portland, a local environmental group that formed to prevent the pipeline from reversing its flow, was elated to learn about the company’s decision.

“Awesome,” Burger said. “That’s wonderful. All this time and they’ve given up. My guess is the Biden administration stepping in had a positive impact. But we only did what was legal for us to do, and it’s making a difference. It sets a precedent in that we’re a powerful example of what a little city can do.”

Burger praised the three-member committee that drafted the ordinance to withstand court review, consisting of South Portland residents Michael Conathan and David Critchfield, and Russell Pierce, an attorney with Norman Hanson DeTroy in Portland who specializes in constitutional, land use and environmental law.

Pierce credited the community for having the confidence, persistence and patience to take on the challenge and see it through.

“It’s a good day for South Portland, for Maine and beyond,” Pierce said. “We were always confident it would withstand the constitutional scrutiny of the courts. It shows the strength of land use powers. The power was always there. In this case, the community galvanized around an issue and took it to City Hall. It’s not easy, but when the dust settles, hopefully people will look at each other and say, ‘OK, let’s work together on this.’ ”

Now mostly shut down, the 236-mile underground pipeline has carried more than 5 billion barrels of foreign crude from harbor terminals in South Portland to refineries in Montreal since the 1940s. The company owns land and buildings spanning 210 acres in the city, from its tanker terminal near Bug Light Park on Casco Bay to a 72-acre wooded parcel off Highland Avenue.

The Clear Skies Ordinance banned crude exports on the premise that loading so-called tar sands oil from western Canada into tankers here would pollute the city’s air. The pipeline is now owned by Suncor Energy Inc., the Canadian company that started the Great Canadian Oil Sands operation in 1967.

The ordinance’s stated goals are to protect public health and the environment, preserve traditional land use authority and promote future development consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

At the time the ordinance was approved, the company said it had no active plan to reverse the pipeline’s flow to bring crude oil from Canada to South Portland. The city’s planning board had approved a proposal to reverse the flow in 2009, and it extended the approval through 2012. But the company never started the project, and by 2013 it was assuring the public it had no active plan transport Canadian crude to Maine.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2015 by the pipeline company and the American Waterways Operators. It claimed that the ordinance was preempted by state and federal law, violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and adversely impacted national and international oil trade. The constitutional clause gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign trade.

In subsequent years, the pipeline and its 23 massive light green storage tanks, stretching through several residential neighborhoods, have become largely dormant as demand for foreign crude in Canada has dwindled.

The company’s capitulation is being viewed by city leaders, environmental groups and others as potentially precedent setting for other pipeline conflicts and similar challenges to local authority.

“The dismissal of this case affirms that local leaders have the legal authority to take appropriate measures to safeguard their communities’ clean land, water, and air from harmful fossil fuel infrastructure projects that threaten public health and the environment,” said Jim Murphy, director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation.

Roberta Zuckerman, a leader of Protect South Portland, said the outcome of the lawsuit should embolden other communities to take action to protect their citizens and surroundings.

“We stood up to one of the most powerful corporations in the world and we won,” Zuckerman said. “It was hard and it cost our city a lot of money, but we did it. Hopefully, it will make it easier for other communities to take steps to protect their health and well being.”

Municipal officials said they hope the city can rebuild its relationship with the pipeline company, though exactly how or what that might look like remains to be seen. Burger, founder of Protect South Portland, said she would love to see much needed housing, gardens and open space replace the pipeline’s storage tanks.

“It is in both of our interests to work together on future plans for their various properties in South Portland,” Mayor Pride said.


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