Reposted from Beacon
It sounds like the kind of thing that happens regularly in banana republics: a giant oil company sues local people for having the audacity to protect their environment. However, this time it is happening here in Maine. Last week the city of South Portland defended itself in federal court against Portland Pipeline Company (PPLC), a subsidiary of oil giants Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Suncor.
Last week, members of the grassroots organization Protect South Portland defended their case in federal court in Portland. Mary Jane “MJ” Ferrier, an 86-year-old nun and spokeswoman for the group said, “This case is about more than South Portland. It is about whether a multinational oil company can intimidate a community and prevent it from protecting its citizens’ health. What this court decides will reverberate throughout communities across our nation.”
Why is an oil company suing South Portland and how did we get here?
The Oily Plan
In late 2012 a handful of concerned citizens—including my parents—got wind of PPLC’s plans to build a tar sands export terminal next to Bug Light Park on South Portland’s waterfront. The company was planning to reverse the flow of a 75-year-old pipeline to transport some of the most corrosive and toxic oil on the planet to tankers in South Portland. It would pass through Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine—including through Sebago Lake, which provides drinking water to one-fifth of all Mainers—to tankers in South Portland, from where they would export it around the world. In order to do so, PPLC planned to construct two 70-foot smokestacks on the city’s shores, poisoning the community with carcinogenic fumes.
The Resistance Mobilizes
However, once citizens got wind of PPLC’s plans, they created Protect South Portland and organized thousands of their neighbors. They gathered enough signatures to force a city-wide referendum on the issue, but were outspent 4-1 by the oil industry, which spent $650,000 to defeat the measure. Before the vote the oil lobby also commissioned a bogus economic study claiming that a moratorium on exporting tar sands—an activity PPLC had never engaged in before—would somehow cost the waterfront five thousand jobs. The company also sent out mailers to all South Portland residents just days before the vote claiming it had no plans to build a tar sands export terminal. PPLC ended up winning by just 192 votes.
Protect South Portland members outside of the federal courthouse in Portland on Thursday, Jue 21. From left to right: Meg Brailey, Louise Tate, Roberta Zuckerman, Priscilla Skerry, Mary Jane “MJ” Ferrier, Rachel Burger, and Judy Kline.
(Photo: Adam Zuckerman)
Undeterred, South Portlanders regrouped and formed a draft ordinance committee, which after months of public input wrote the Clear Skies Ordinance. The regulation was narrower than the original referendum and was limited to preventing the bulk loading of crude onto marine tankers. South Portlanders mobilized en masse behind the initiative and the city council voted 6-1 in favor of the Clear Skies Ordinance. While PPLC had claimed all along that they had no plans to build an export terminal, under cross examination, company officials admitted that had they won the city council vote, they would have applied for a permit for the export terminal the next day.
False Patriotism and Fuzzy Logic
Backed by the oil industry, Portland Pipeline is now suing the city of South Portland, claiming that the Clear Skies Initiative “discriminates against out-of-state competitors, attempts to regulate business outside South Portland, and interferes with federal control of foreign commerce.” It has tried to portray supporters of the ordinance as a small but powerful group of radical environmental activists that manipulated the city. They have also tried to portray themselves as blue collar homegrown patriots standing up for America. During the city council hearings, company representatives showed up in red shirts emblazoned with giant American flags and the words “American Energy,” and with a straight face advocated for an oil company’s plan to threaten American communities in order to import Canadian oil and export it to China.
The company has also tried to blame South Portland for its failing business. Portland Pipeline has only received one tanker delivery since August 2017. However, this is not due to the Clear Skies Ordinance, but rather due to the abundance of crude production in Alberta, Manitoba, and North Dakota that has made importing oil through Maine to Canada economically unviable. That is why it is suing to reverse the way of the pipeline. The company’s argument is essentially, “our business is failing because we are not allowed to do something that we never did in the past.”
However, the city has used PPLC’s own statements against it, claiming that since PPLC has stated numerous times it has no plans to reverse the pipeline, it has no claim. South Portland also argues that under home rule authority it has a right to protect its air quality, and that the ordinance does not interfere with federal control of foreign commerce.
Through April 2018, the city had already spent $1.6 million defending itself from PPLC’s retaliatory suit. The oil company likely believes that if it can outspend and outlast the city, it can win the case through attrition rather than on its merits. That is why Protect South Portland created the Clear Skies Legal Defense Fund to support the city’s legal efforts and they have already raised over $168,000 to support South Portland’s defense. You can donate directly to legal defense fund here. If South Portland wins, Portland Pipeline is likely to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston, where the case will take another two or three years to conclude.
Supporters of the Clear Skies Ordinance outnumber its opponents at a South Portland City Council hearing. (Photo: Dan P. Wood)