Maine City's Ordinance Blocking Tar Sands Export Could Be Model for Cities Nationwide

Posted July 30, 2014

MP3 Interview with Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


On July 21, South Portland, Maine’s city council voted 6 to 1 to approve what’s known as the Clear Skies Ordinance, a regulation that blocks the loading of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, onto tankers at the city's harbor for export around the world.

A proposal initiated by Exxon Mobil subsidiary, the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, would reverse the flow of conventional oil that currently moves west through a pipeline from the city to Canada – to a new eastbound flow carrying Alberta tar sands through an aging pipeline to Portland’s waterfront. Similar to the dirty process of extracting tar-sands oil, transporting it exacts an environmental cost. The heavy, almost-solid bitumen can only be moved through pipelines after it is thinned out with a mixture of liquid natural gas and other petroleum products to something called diluted bitumen, or dilbit. And then it can only be loaded onto tankers after the added ingredients are burned off. ExxonMobil has secured permits to build two facilities on South Portland’s harbor to do the burning.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus covered the start of the campaign opposing the flow of tar sands into Maine at a rally in January 2013. After South Portland’s recent city council vote, she spoke with Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which was one of the groups supporting the Clear Skies Ordinance. Here he explains how the vote succeeded, why it's considered of national importance in the fight to stop tar sands extraction and export, and what the city can expect from big oil companies who want to overturn the ordinance and see the pipeline project proceed.

DYLAN VOORHEES: To load crude oil, including tar sands onto tankers requires the construction of a variety of polluting infrastructure that doesn't exist there today; that doesn't exist when you take crude oil off of tankers, and this includes loading facilities that have quite a lot of pollution from burning off the chemicals from the operation of loading tar sands and crude oil onto tankers. And at the end of the day that was the concern that really drove multiple proposals to protect the city from a tar sands loading facility and the smoke stacks and the construction of a terminal to do that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I'm sure there were a lot of pressures and different points of view for the city councilors to consider. How was the organizing done to get six out of out of them to vote in favor of this ordinance?

DYLAN VOORHEES: Well, there really has been a long effort, and it's been led by a really committed group of citizens and residents of South Portland. Last year, residents in South Portland came together, they formed a group, Protect South Portland, a citizen-led organization. They actually brought an ordinance to the ballot last fall and so there was an enormous amount of community education and organizing around that. It was very narrowly defeated because the oil industry had really attacked it very, I think, dishonestly, and it was defeated by a very small number of votes. But the city council was persuaded by the concerns of citizens to try again, and they set up a committee to develop another ordinance that would protect the city from this tar sands facility and the air pollution associated with it. And I think the mood in the community is really fairly clear: they don't really want this. Air quality is already an issue; there are a lot of schools that are exposed to chemicals and fumes in problematic ways already.

And the counter has really been the American Petroleum Institute and oil interests that really are disconnected in a real way from South Portland. There's no benefit to South Portland from having smokestacks and a terminal to load tar sands onto tankers. That's not a local benefit; it's an oil industry benefit. So the American Petroleum Institute – the national lobbying arm, that's Big Oil if there ever was "Big Oil" – spent about $700,000 in this very small city to defeat and attack this referendum last year, and they tried hard to attack the ordinance that the city council supported. But they really weren't successful because ultimately it's not a contest when you have the interests of out of state, far-away tar sands profits compared to the health of the air that residents and kids and the elderly all breathe. So when it comes down to that contest, really, it's nice to see local elected officials responding, and they certainly responded very clearly and positively to this ordinance in South Portland.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There are a lot of proposed pipelines in the U.S. and across Canada. The articles I've read indicate that this vote in South Portland is of national significance. Do you agree with that, and if so, why?

DYLAN VOORHEES: I do and I think that it is important when you see the full pattern of communities resisting tar sands and trying to face down a variety of those threats, and lots of communities have faced threats from tar sands in a lot of different ways. From up in Alberta, where clearly, communities are being horrifically impacted by extraction and mining operations to communities where there are pipelines and pipeline spills have impacted or threatened communities, to a city like South Portland where you have a potential loading operation that would put air pollution into their communities by their schools. I think it's significant because the pattern that is emerging is communities saying No to these variety of threats of tar sands. And I think the oil industry and the tar sands industry just has to reckon with them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Dylan Voorhees, what's the next step? I read that lawsuits are very likely by Portland Pipe Line Corporation or possibly even the government of Canada. What can you tell us about that?

DYLAN VOORHEES: Those deep-pocketed oil resources certainly have suggested that they are considering legal action, and that could happen in federal court; it could be a number of parties. The city stands, I think, confidently, to defend the ordinance. There was a really great, transparent deliberative process that put the ordinance together. A number of organizations, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, have stepped up very articulately to describe why the ordinance will withstand a legal challenge, and that they will participate, as will the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in making sure the ordinance is well-defended in court. That's the decision of the oil industry whether they want to put the community through that costly legal challenge. If they do, we are confident they will ultimately lose.

For more news and analysis on environmental and climate change group’s opposition to tar sands pipelines, visit Natural Resources Council of Maine at

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