November 6, 2013

South Portland voters reject ordinance targeting tar sands oil

But supporters say they plan a second ordinance to prevent the shipment of the oil through the city.

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The controversial proposal to ban so-called tar sands oil from South Portland was defeated Tuesday in a close citywide vote.

Voters in favor of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance were defeated on their referendum vote.

click image to enlarge

Members of the Working Waterfront Coalition, supporters of Say No to the WPO, gather at the campaign headquarters at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Working Waterfront Coalition campaign manager Dan Demeritt tallies poll results.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



The Waterfront Protection Ordinance, officially introduced in June, would amend the South Portland zoning ordinance to specify that permitted petroleum-related uses include the unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland. The amendment would also limit the enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum facilities.


So-called “tar sands” oil is a raw form of petroleum found underground in a mixture of water and sand. At room temperature, the substance has the consistency of cold molasses and therefore must be diluted with a bevy of volatile organic chemicals before it may be pumped through a pipeline. Vast deposits of the substance have been known to lie under the Alberta wilderness since the 1930s. The Alberta government says that proven reserves equal about 170.8 billion barrels of crude oil, most of which is locked up in oil sands. For years, the form of petroleum was too expensive to extract and process to be profitable.


The possible effects of the ordinance have been hotly debated. Proponents say the ordinance is narrowly drafted to prevent the conversion of one of the city’s large oil import terminals into an export terminal for Canadian tar sands oil. Opponents, however, say there is no plan to export tar sands oil through the city and that the language of the ordinance would restrict operations at other terminals that have nothing to do with the Canadian oil.

The final tally was 51 percent to 49 percent against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance – with 4,453 votes against the ordinance and 4,261 in favor. Forty-five percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots.

The 192-vote margin meant victory for the coalition of oil companies and waterfront businesses that opposed the law.

Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, was ecstatic after learning the election results. Now, he said, it’s time for South Portland residents and businesses to have a “real conversation” about the future of the city’s working waterfront.

That kind of discussion was impossible in recent weeks because the campaign became so divisive. “We were on two different planets,” he said.

Mayor Tom Blake said he is poised to initiate a process Wednesday to write a new law to prevent tar sands crude from flowing through the city’s six oil terminals.

The effort would begin with a 180-day moratorium on any project to reverse the flow of the 236-mile oil pipeline that connects South Portland and Montreal, which has been owned since the 1940s by Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Blake vowed to propose the moratorium to city councilors at a workshop Wednesday.

The temporary ban would prevent any effort to bring tar sands oil from Canada into the city, to give the council time to approve a new law that might accomplish what the defeated ordinance could not.

“It’s up to the councilors to come up with language that is satisfactory to keep tar sands out,” Blake said.

Py said that opponents won’t go away, and that waterfront businesses must address the concerns of the more than 4,000 people who voted for the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. But the forum for that conversation should be the City Council or the Planning Board, he said, rather than a citywide referendum.

“It needs to be about facts, not fear,” Py said.

At the Maine Military Museum, where about 30 opponents of the ordinance gathered to watch election coverage, cheers erupted as early returns showed the group – the Working Waterfront Coalition – far in the lead.

Several dozen volunteers spent Tuesday telephoning supporters, carrying signs at intersections and knocking on doors. The Working Waterfront Coalition is made up of energy companies, business groups and organized labor, including the union that represents South Portland’s firefighters.

The coalition includes people who typically don’t find themselves on the same side of issues, “but we’re all on the same side on this one,” said Jim Merrill, the campaign’s spokesman.

As the loss set in at the headquarters of Protect South Portland, the group that wrote the proposed law, a sudden hush fell over the crowd, followed by murmurs, questions and tears.

“We have such a motivated group of citizens here and I feel like we’re just going to keep working to prevent tar sands,” said Carolyn Graney, who spoke after announcing the results.

Since June, the campaigns to sway residents on the issue have divided the city. Political signs blanketed roadway medians, front lawns and storefront windows. Canvassers knocked on thousands of doors and called countless voters. Outside money poured in on both sides, although petroleum interests deeply outspent their opponents.

South Portland has long been an oil-handling port, not only for crude piped to Canada.

Waterfront terminals have for decades received shipments of home heating oil, gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products, which are stored in massive tank farms that dot the city’s shores and suburban neighborhoods before trucks distribute them around northern New England.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Proponents and opponents hold up dueling signs about South Portland’s proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance on Tuesday as voters head to the polls to decide its fate.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)