Justin Mikulka

Maine Residents Fight American Petroleum Institute Lobbyists Over Ban on Tar Sands Shipments

Portland, Maine, has become the latest battleground in the fight against tar sands oil, with local residents facing off against energy industry forces in an attempt to ban tar sands oil from the city’s port.

The South Portland Clear Skies Ordinance, would ban tar sands oil from being loaded on to ships at the local port. City council will take a final vote on the measure today.

Three weeks ago, about 200 people attended a presentation on the proposed ordinance, many wearing blue “clear skies” t-shirts to show their support. Only three people spoke against the ordinance at that meeting.

But on July 7, when many of the same 200 people in blue t-shirts showed up at the meeting when the city council was set to vote on the ordinance, they were met with a surprise. The meeting room was packed with people in red shirts that read “American Energy” on the front and “SoPo Jobs” on the back.

 It quickly became clear that there were far more people than fire codes would allow. Members of the fire department began asking people to leave, but met with resistance as one local grandmother replied, “Young man, I’m not going anywhere.” The meeting was postponed for two days and moved to a local gymnasium.

At the rescheduled meeting on July 9th, after hearing from a long line of commenters, the large majority who were in favor of the ordinance, the council voted 6-1 in favour of the ordinance.

One of the speakers expressed her dislike over attempts by the American Petroleum Institute to influence South Portland’s democratic process. 

She was referring to the campaign that was financed by the American Petroleum Institute and other oil industry players to influence the outcome of a referendum to ban tar sands in South Portland in October of 2013. The referendum was the result of local activists gathering almost 4,000 signatures in their city of about 25,000 to get the issue on the ballot. However, once it was on the ballot, the effort gained the attention of the oil industry.

The American Petroleum Institute backed a professionally run public relations, voter outreach and get-out-the-vote effort to urge citizens to vote against the referendum. In mailings and open letters to the residents of South Portland, the campaign claimed that there were no plans to bring tar sands to South Portland. One stated:

Some of you may be concerned about tar sands, which may have prompted you to sign a Waterfront Protection Ordinance petition. But the ordinance is not about tar sands.

In addition to saying the referendum had nothing to do with tar sands, the messaging included one of Big Oil’s favorite points — jobs. They claimed the ordinance would shut down the port’s existing oil operations and cost local people their jobs.

According to a report published by Environment Maine Research and Policy Center in June 2014 titled, Inside the Big Oil Playbook, the API-backed effort spent $750,000 to defeat the South Portland ballot measure. The measure was defeated by fewer than 200 votes

And despite the claims that there were no plans to bring tar sands to South Portland, after the vote, ads were run in local papers by the group Energy Citizens, a front group for the American Petroleum Institute, that claimed tar sands oil was, “Just Oil. From Canada. Safe Reliable Oil from our Neighbors to the North.”

On July 9, among the few commenters who opposed the ordinance was David Manning, a “Neighbor to the North” representing Alberta, the province where the tar sands are produced. Manning is serving as Alberta’s representative in Washington, D.C., and is committed to expanding the trading relationship Alberta has with the U.S. The Alberta government website goes into detail on Manning’s responsibilities:

Perhaps the most critical role identified is to build a constituency of Alberta supporters in the U.S., U.S. based companies, institutions, and individuals who influence the decisions of U.S.governments [and] are critical to Alberta's network of support for future growth and unfettered market access.

It would appear that his responsibility to ensure “unfettered market access” is what brought him to South Portland. Another fun fact included in Manning’s bio is the fact that he was once the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. 

Manning made several points in defence of oil sands in his three minutes. He described Alberta as a “tourist mecca” and said “we take the environment very seriously.”

However, his main argument was that Canadian oil is more environmentally friendly than the oil sourced from Venezuela, Russia, Iraq and North Africa — ignoring the concerns of residents opposed to tar sands due to the impacts it has when spilled, like when Enbridge’s pipeline burst into the Kalamazoo River.The pipeline that could be used to bring tar sands to South Portland is near Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for the Greater Portland area.

While the vote on July 9 was seen as a victory for the local supporters of the ordinance, it is only a first step. The ordinance was reviewed by the city planning board on July 15th, and the council will take a final vote on the measure tonight.

Mary Jane Ferrier, one of the organizers behind Protect South Portland, told DeSmogBlog, “This isn’t over yet. This is just the beginning.” 

Already there is talk of a referendum in November to overturn this ordinance if it passes tonight, as well as potential legal challenges by the oil industry. It is highly unlikely the American Petroleum Institute and the government of Alberta will let this ordinance go unchallenged.

While South Portland is currently on the forefront of the tar sands issue in the North East, the city is certainly not alone as a potential destination. There is a similar situation shaping up in Albany, NY, where a rail company wants tobring tar sands to Albany and then load it onto ships to sail down the Hudson River. That plan is also facing stiff opposition from local activists, while oil-by-rail executives actively tout the benefits of moving tar sands oil by rail.

On July 13, there was a protest at the New England Governor’s conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, asking the governor’s to ban tar sands.

With the oil industry seeing the U.S. East Coast as a desired destination for Alberta tar sands, the issue is only going to grab more headlines. No matter the outcome tonight, the vote in South Portland is certain to be a rallying point for people on both sides of the issue.