Friday, July 11, 2014

On Tar Sands, My City Steps Up

For several years, all eyes have been on the proposed Keystone Pipeline.  But Keystone isn’t the only pipeline that could connect Canadian tar sands crude to a United States port.  Another possibility has its southern terminus about a mile from my house.

Portland-montrealThe pipeline has its origins in World War II.  During the early stages of the war, when the United States was still nominally neutral, Canada needed an oil supply port.  South Portland, Maine, where I live, became that port, and to this day, a pipeline carries oil from tankers docking in Portland Harbor through northern New England and on to refineries near Montreal.  But as Canada’s tar sands bonanza has reduced the country’s need for oil imports, the amount of oil passing through the pipeline has declined, and its owners began to consider whether oil might flow more profitably in the opposite direction. 

Most of New England wants no part of this.  But state and local governments lack the authority to regulate the contents or safety of interstate pipelines.  So, unless the pipeline company needs to build new facilities within their towns—and, in most places, it does not--most New Englanders hold only political leverage over the possible reversal.  My city is in a different position.  Turning an import facility into a tar sands oil export facility would require the construction of new infrastructure, and that infrastructure would be built right next to the city’s most popular and scenic waterfront park, and in an area where the city hopes to see mixed-use development.  The possibility of a pipeline reversal therefore confronted the city with a land use question: do we want new crude oil export facilities on our waterfront? 

Tar sands meetingAddressing that kind of land use question is a classic prerogative of local governments, and last night, the city council took a big step toward answering “no.”  For the past six months, and through a series of public meetings, a small committee has been working on drafting an ordinance that would address the local environmental threats posed by new export facilities.  Their task was not easy.  The ordinance can’t exceed municipal authority, and it also needs to address the desire, shared by many voters in South Portland, to protect the city’s eastern waterfront while protecting industrial jobs and maintaining an active working port in the western part of the city.  But I think the committee did an excellent job, and the city council seems to agree.  The process isn’t over—planning board review and another city council vote still will occur—and the oil industry is already making noises about a ballot initiative or litigation.  But Wednesday’s vote still was a big step, and I’m proud of my city.  Through a careful, deliberative, and highly public process, we’ve decided that we’re not going to be the endpoint of the East Coast’s Keystone.

- Dave Owen

(the meeting photo above first appeared in the Portland Press Herald, which has run a series of informative articles about the controversy.)

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