Towering smokestacks on the shores of Casco Bay

ExxonMobil wants to build a tar sands oil terminal in South Portland, one of the largest oil ports on the U.S. east coast. The terminal, which would be located between two historic lighthouses, would pollute the air and transform the coastline with 70-foot combustion stacks, the tallest in Portland Harbor. 

In July 2014, Environment Maine and the citizens group Protect South Portland convinced the South Portland City Council to block the oil terminal. However, the oil industry has vowed to use "all political and legal means" to overturn the new Clear Skies Ordinance. We are committed to defending our true David versus Goliath victory.

Polluting our air, transforming the coastline

Tar sands oil, which is mined in Alberta, Canada, is the dirtiest oil on earth. The oil industry is trying to greatly expand the tar sands industry, and South Portland is important to those plans, because it's the only U.S. city on the east coast with a deep-water port and that is connected to a crude oil pipeline.

Loading tar sands onto tankers in Casco Bay and storing the heavy, unconventional oil at the tank farms interwoven in the South Portland community would increase air pollution and threaten public health. 

The new 70-foot combustion smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds, including hazardous air pollutants, like benzene, which cause cancer and other serious health problems at very low-levels of exposure. Volatile organic compounds also mix with sunlight and other chemicals to form smog, a potent lung irritant that contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular problems from asthma attacks to premature deaths. 

The smokestacks would be the tallest in the city and near Bug Light Park, Willard Beach, Fisherman’s Point, and the Greenbelt Walkway, harming scenic views and property values. 

Tar sands also poses numerous other risks to Maine, due to potential tanker spills in Casco Bay, pipeline spills in Sebago Lake, and a further destabilized climate.

Grassroots campaign builds public and political support to win

In early 2013, Environment Maine helped form Protect South Portland, a citizens group, to stop the tar sands oil terminal.

The groups qualified an initiative, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, for the November 2013 ballot and ran a grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor campaign to pass it. 

However, the American Petroleum Institute and its allies spent $750,000 to narrowly defeat the citizen’s initiative by attacking it as overly broad. To put this spending in perspective, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $184 for every vote in his favor in one of the most expensive self-financed political campaigns in U.S. history.

We lost by 192 votes at the ballot but had swayed public opinion against tar sands. Immediately following the vote, we convinced the South Portland City Council to develop a new ordinance to block the tar sands oil terminal. 

In July 2014, with the city firmly behind it, the South Portland City Council passed by a 6-1 vote the Clear Skies Ordinance to prohibit the bulk loading of tar sands onto tankers on the waterfront and related infrastructure in the city. 

The 5 Year Fight

As a backstop or insurance plan, we are also working to convince the U.S. State Department to require a new permit and full environmental review for any project to carry tar sands through the antiquated Portland-Montreal pipeline, which ends in South Portland. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King have a big role to play in convincing the State Department to step in.

And South Portland certainly is not alone. Many communities are dealing with tar sands infrastructure projects, such as pipelines and terminals, that are part of the oil industry's massive expansion plans for the extraction, transport, and refining of tar sands, and these projects have serious local impacts.

The oil industry did sue in early 2015 to try to overturn the ordinance and after a long battle, on December 29th 2017, a federal district court judge threw out all of the industry's claims against South Portland except one, whether the ordinance violated the Constitution.

However, August 24th 2018, a federal judge ruled that the city of South Portland did not violate the U.S. Constitution when it passed the ordinance blocking the pipeline company from bringing tar sands oil through its port.

Our victory in South Portland shows that Big Oil is not invincible, and that the exploitation of tar sands is not inevitable. Communities are standing up, and powerfully so, to protect themselves—and we are winning.

Issue updates

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