Lauren McCauley

The community of South Portland, Maine made history Monday night when the city councilvoted to pass an ordinance that would block Canadian tar sands from being loaded onto tankers and exported from their port.

“We may be a small city, but, boy, we’ve done a big thing tonight!" said Mary-Jane Ferrier, spokesperson for Protect South Portland. 

The Clear Skies Ordinance, which prohibits the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto tankers on the city's waterfront and forbids the construction of infrastructure for that purpose, passed in a 6-1 vote.

The pre-emptive measure faced enormous outside pressure from the oil industry, which employed such tactics as "astroturf" organizing and spending big on consulting, advertising, and get-out-the-vote efforts. An earlier vote on the ordinance had to be rescheduled when members of a Big Oil front group showed up in droves, overcrowding the meeting room. The industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last fall to defeat a similar referendum.

On Monday, roughly 300 people turned up to hear the vote. Mostly comprising supporters wearing light blue t-shirts, the group erupted in applause after the city council announced final passage of the measure.

“Tonight citizens working to protect their community prevailed over Big Oil. It is a true David versus Goliath victory,” said Environment Maine Director Emily Figdor in a press statement. “The oil industry is not invincible, and the exploitation of tar sands is not inevitable."

350 Maine member Bob Klotz told Common Dreams that this is likely the first such ordinance passed in a community that faces a real threat of being overrun by tar sands exports. South Portland is the only U.S. city on the East Coast with a deep-water port and that is connected to a crude oil pipeline.

Though the language of the ordinance specifically focuses on the threat to air quality and the local impact of such industry, Klotz said that what helped rally the community behind the proposal is the greater conversation about "what is inevitable."

"This all relates to climate change," he said, adding that he hopes that such local measures force energy companies to engage in a larger dialogue about the impact of fossil fuels and move towards a more progressive, sustainable solution.

"Tar sands is the dirtiest form of oil now threatening us," said Judy Berk of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "Some communities face threats from pipeline spills, others from extraction and mining, and others from loading and refining. All of us face the threat of climate change worsened by tar sands."

Klotz says that although the oil industry is already threatening to take legal action against the ordinance, the city is prepared for the fight.

"We know that we are up against some of the richest companies in the history of history," said Klotz. Quoting Bill McKibben, he adds that to fight these powers, you need "a different currency—and that currency is people power." The enormous grassroots effort in South Portland, he says, has already "proven" itself.

"From Nebraska to Maine, citizens are standing up, and powerfully so, to protect their communities—and we are winning," added Figdor.

The Portland Montreal Pipeline, owned largely by Exxon Mobil, currently carries oil from freighters docked in South Portland's harbor across northern New England to Montreal. Though the company has denied such a plan, residents and environmentalists say that there are clear indications that PPL and parent company Montreal Pipe Line Company are planning to reverse the flow of the pipeline in order to transport tar sands oil from Canada to South Portland for export.