scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Maine’s tar sands oil ban a win for activists

Portland vote lifts hopes of environmentals wary of pipeline

A pipeline could have sent Canadian tar sands oil to South Portland’s port, where tankers would have exported it.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

SOUTH PORTLAND — Since World War II, fleets of oil tankers from around the world have sailed up to the long jetty in this placid harbor and unloaded their crude into a 236-mile pipeline that pumped it to Montreal, where it was refined into everything from jet fuel to gasoline.

In recent years, as natural gas has reduced the demand for crude and as Canada has begun extracting its own vast reserves of so-called tar sands oil, the number of ships has dwindled from dozens to just a few a month. As a result, the company that owns the pipeline has sought permits that would allow it to reverse its flow, triggering fears here that the controversial Canadian crude could soon course through this coastal city and fill a new fleet of tankers bound for Asia and other foreign ports.


But the South Portland City Council, responding to concerns about toxic spills and the impact of tar sands oil on climate change, voted Monday night to ban the export of unrefined crude from its port.

Many of the hundreds of people who packed the City Council meeting wearing matching blue shirts in favor of what was dubbed the Clear Skies ordinance hoped their sustained campaign would serve as a model for how to rally a community against tar sands oil.They said similar pressure could block other potential routes of the controversial crude to the global market, especially the effort to extend the Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the tar sands of Western Canada with the big refineries and US ports along the Gulf of Mexico.

“This victory sends an important message to communities around the country,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who joined hundreds of others in giving city councilors a standing ovation after they voted 6 to 1 in favor of the ordinance. “It shows that we can stand up against a dirty, toxic form of energy, and that it’s not inevitable.”


Opponents of the ordinance, which is likely to face legal challenges and other potential obstacles, contended that it could cost jobs and hurt the long-term prospects of the city’s port. Energy specialists said that even if the ordinance is upheld, it is unlikely to significantly slow the shipment of tar sands oil to world markets.

“The South Portland City Council committed this community to continued division and discord,” Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said in a statement. “The ordinance sends a chilling message to businesses of all kinds. It says that this City Council will kowtow to a small group of activists and arbitrarily ban a legitimate business operation.”

Other opponents suggested councilors were violating the will of residents, noting that a similar effort failed last November when voters narrowly defeated, by about 200 out of some 14,000 votes, a citywide referendum to ban tar sands oil.

“Let’s be honest about what’s happening here. . . . This is the first step to shutting down the oil industry in South Portland,” said Tom Hardison, vice president of Portland Pipe Line Corp., while addressing councilors before the vote and saying his company would “evaluate several options” about how to contest the ordinance.

Indeed, some environmental advocates would like to see just that, fearing continued use of fossil fuels and reliance on thick crude from tar sands, also known as oil sands, is heating up the planet at an unsustainable rate. The extraction and burning of the heavy crude emits significantly more heat-trapping gases than other oil. Beyond the Keystone and Portland pipelines, they have been campaigning against similar projects such as Northern Gateway, which would pump tar sands oil to Pacific ports in British Columbia, and Energy East, which would carry the crude from Ontario to Atlantic ports in New Brunswick.


“What happened in South Portland shows that it can be done, and I think that could have enormous implications,” said Bob Klotz, a spokesman for 350 Maine, which is part of a national environmental advocacy group that has campaigned intensely against tar sands oil. “We don’t want to see any tar sands coming out of the ground. We have to push on all fronts.”

By itself, removing the Portland pipeline from the equation will not make that much of a difference, oil analysts said. Oil would only flow through Maine if it exceeded the capacity of refineries in Montreal and Quebec City, which use roughly about 400,000 barrels a day.

“The simple math is that it’s hard to see how much left there would have been to go to Portland,” said Juan Osuna, a senior director of crude oil research in North America for IHS, an energy consulting company. “I don’t think anyone who was investing in oil sands was counting on that pipeline to make the economics work.”


While blocking the extension of other pipelines with greater capacity would have a significant impact on transporting tar sands oil to places such as China and India — there are lawsuits in Nebraska and in British Columbia to stop Keystone and Northern Gateway — the crude could still move by rail.

Indeed, more than 160,000 barrels a day are shipped by train now, up from less than 16,000 barrels a day two years ago, according to the Canadian National Energy Board.

“Rail is a viable option,” Osuna said. “We’re expecting by the end of this year to have close to a million barrels of loading capacity a day.”

But shipping tar sands oil by rail is nearly twice as expensive as sending it by pipeline, and there are a host of safety concerns. Last year, a train carrying crude from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying 30 buildings in the town’s center.

“Derailments happen all the time,” Klotz said. “Rail is not a safe option.”

Some South Portland city councilors who opposed the referendum last year said they were persuaded to support the ordinance because of their concern about toxic spills and the difficulty of cleaning up tar sands oil, which because of its consistency sinks in water. They noted a tar sands spill four years ago in Michigan polluted 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River and led to one of the costliest cleanups in US history.

Among those who changed his mind was Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who said he was mainly concerned because the pipeline runs through the Sebago Lake watershed, which provides about a quarter of the state’s population with drinking water.


He also worried about potential spills in the scenic harbor, which is home to a historic fort, century-old lighthouses, and pleasure boats plying its cobalt waters.

“When you start looking at the bigger picture, it’s just a higher level of risk than we’re prepared to accept,” he said.

David Abel can be reached at