Despite Industry Bullying, New England Stands Up to Tar Sands

The City Council of South Portland, Maine, responded last week to wide concern among residents and passed a 180-day moratorium on any move to transport tar sands there.

White-tailed deer image by N. and M.J. Mishler (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
White-tailed deer are among the species under threat from tar-sands development in the Northeast. Photo by N. and M.J. Mishler (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
How did this happen? Residents learned about tar sands and the potential threat they could pose to the city’s environment and economy. They talked to their friends and neighbors about the issue. They got informed through an ordinance campaign that would have kept tar sands infrastructure from being built on their waterfront. (Unfortunately, the ordinance was narrowly defeated as a result of an industry misinformation campaign that spent more than $600,000 scaring voters into believing the ordinance was overbroad.) The campaign made clear, though, that the citizens of South Portland did not want tar sands in their community.

Exxon-owned Portland Montreal Pipe Line Company knows it is losing. It has spent months denying any plans to transport tar sands through its aging pipeline while at the same time signaling it was open for tar sands business.  The pipeline currently carries oil from Portland to Montreal.

I’d call what happened in South Portland that resulted in the moratorium community engagement at its finest. And what did the oil industry call it? Grounds for a lawsuit.

Just days after South Portland began considering a temporary moratorium on tar sands within city limits, the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute sent a threatening letter to the City Council.

Despite denying there is a tar sands project at all, API oddly seems to think tar sands is critical for South Portland’s future—and no big deal, anyway. In the letter, the API offers to “explain” why the city’s concerns about the heavy, dirty fuel mix are “unfounded.” It continues to say that delaying or prohibiting the development of oil sands in general could harm Maine and the United States in general, and suggests that South Portland’s move to protect itself is an “end-run around federal and state policy.” It even goes so far as to suggest that because the devastating effects of tar sands spills are currently “being addressed” with studies, there is no need to worry about the damage they have already done to bodies of water and towns in Michigan and Arkansas, or the damage a spill could do to Maine’s waters.

Standard Industry Practice

This isn’t the first time the oil industry and its cheerleaders in Canada has tried to influence, confuse, or outright bully communities of all sizes into stepping back: Last March, when towns across Vermont considered passing resolutions at Town Meeting opposing the transport of tar sands through our state, Canadian officials sent letters to the towns informing them such action was unnecessary and misguided. But Vermonters know how to think for themselves, and 29 towns passed anti-tar sands resolutions.

South Portland’s City Council listened—and what they heard was the industry finally showing its true colors. Mainers can think for themselves too. The City Council called the industry’s bluff, passing the moratorium 6 to 1 with a huge show of public support.

South Portland is making a statement. Towns all over Vermont have made a statement. Tar sands are devastating to water and wildlife both at their source in Canada, and wherever they spill in America. The fuel isn’t worth the risk to our environment and economy, and the region does not want the risks.

The road from here will not be easy, but if communities all along the pipeline route—and all over the country—stand up to the oil industry, we can win.

Take Action ButtonHelp protect our wildlife and communities from dirty oil by urging the State Department to say no to tar sands in the northeast.