Portland Press Herald

The debate about whether Canadian tar sands oil ever will flow through South Portland has just gotten stickier.

While anti-tar-sands activists and residents say a proposed city ordinance is tailored narrowly to squelch the possibility of Portland Pipe Line Corp. ever using its 236-mile underground pipeline to bring the crude oil from Canada to Portland Harbor, some powerful opponents emerged this week to say the proposal would affect businesses that have nothing to do with the tar sands conflict.

With voters expected to decide in November, the campaign has developed early signs of a complex legal dispute with nuanced interpretations of zoning law and court precedent.

The standoff in South Portland could play a key role an an international struggle about Canada’s ability to export the heavy oil that is abundant in the tar sands of Alberta.

The Portland Pipe Line is seen as one of the possible ways for Canada to export the oil, although the company itself has not made such a proposal and has said it has no plans to do so.

Opponents say tar sands crude is an especially risky oil because it is sticky and corrosive and its export into the global market will accelerate climate change.

Petroleum industry representatives deny that the oil poses any greater risk of leaking or spilling than the crude oil that already flows through the Portland Pipe Line. The pipeline’s operators also point to a strong safety record in South Portland and all along the pipeline to Montreal.

Tar sands opponents in Maine, including many who held a rally Thursday night in Portland, see the proposed South Portland ordinance as a potentially decisive effort. The stakes also appear to be high for the pIpeline and the city’s large oil industry.

At a South Portland Planning Board meeting Tuesday, advocates and opponents of the pre-emptive ban fundamentally disagreed about the meaning of the measure’s language and how those words may be brought to bear on existing businesses that have little or nothing to do with tar sands oil or the pipeline.

The Concerned Citizens of South Portland, which wrote and proposed the measure, say existing businesses that pump, store, and handle petroleum and petroleum-related products would continue to be allowed to operate as they did before the new zoning law, which only would prohibit them from expanding in specific ways that were designed to ban tar sands shipments.

“Anyone familiar with the zoning process would expect (city) staff to step forward and explain to the board that all existing uses can continue,” said Natalie West, an attorney for the group who helped author the proposed law. “Changes in zoning laws do not ‘shut down’ existing uses.”

Detractors of the proposal, meanwhile, say the measure’s language is overly broad, stands at cross-purposes with existing long term land-use plans and would hamstring a variety of unrelated businesses from updating equipment and expanding their operations along sections of the waterfront, eventually hampering their ability to stay afloat.

“What are these people trying to do?” said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, an industry trade group that has initiated a ballot committee to oppose the measure. “They don’t want to bring in Canadian oil sands, so their purpose then becomes, ‘Let’s not allow anybody to do anything new on the waterfront.'”

In Py’s interpretation, the ordinance would bar a petroleum-handling company from even fixing broken equipment or installing new technology that would carry out an existing and permitted use, such as off-loading crude oil.

As written, the proposed measure would implement several key changes to current zoning law. It’s technical and somewhat complex and includes a variety of changes for specific zoning districts.

For example, petroleum storage tank farms and accessory facilities in the shipyard district would be allowed for the “unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland” only. It would ban expansion of existing tank farms and accessory facilities and construction of new facilities on existing piers in the shipyard district.

The two sides already disagree sharply on whether the proposal is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, a key issue before the Planning Board.

The Planning Board has been tasked by the City Council with determining whether the proposed ordinance complies with the vision for each affected area. The board is not expected to vote on a recommendation until its next meeting on Aug. 13.

The council also will hold a public hearing on the proposal before probably placing it on the ballot in November.

Soon the conversation surrounding the proposed ordinance will get a lot more public and will see more direct outreach to voters by oil companies and their supporters.

The ballot committee established by Py’s trade group will allow petroleum-related companies to raise and spend money for a campaign to defeat the ballot question.

A spokesman for the Energy Marketers association declined on Tuesday to describe what specific tactics the committee will employ, but said the campaign will focus on voter education.

“The MEMA ballot question committee … will stand with the men, women, families and small business who make up — and rely upon — the working waterfront of South Portland.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.