How a town in Maine is blocking an Exxon tar-sands pipeline

By Roger Drouin, Grist

 

tar sands protestors in Maine
350.org
 

Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue “Clear Skies” shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

“It’s been a long fight,” said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city’s port.

The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city’s waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.

After an intensely debated, year-and-a-half battle, the South Portland City Council on Monday sided with residents like Jones who don’t want their city to end up as a new “international hub” for the export of tar-sands oil.

South Portland city council meeting
Dan Wood
Proponents of the Clear Skies ordinance, wearing blue, packed a South Portland city council meeting on July 9.
 

“The message to the tar sands industry is: ‘Don’t be counting your chickens yet,’” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “There is a pattern of communities saying ‘no’ to the threat of tar-sands oil.”

A clear signal

The ordinance could have global implications. The Canadian government expects the nation’s oil industry to be producing 4 million to 6 million barrels of tar-sands bitumen a day within a few years, and it’s pinning its hopes on somehow getting all that oil to coastal ports, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. Indeed, a recent report from the International Energy Agency found that the industry needs export pipelines in order for its boom to continue.

South Portland’s move is just the latest setback for plans to pipe the bitumen out to international markets. Another big hurdle is the long delay over the Keystone XL pipeline. And in Canada, pipeline plans have met with opposition from indigenous peoples (known as First Nations), who are taking the lead to stop projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway tar-sands pipeline through British Columbia.

Now, there is a clear signal that communities along the U.S. East Coast will fight tar-sands expansion too.

“Do not under estimate the power of a local government,” said Kuprewicz.

“A lot of perseverance”

In early 2013, residents formed Protect South Portland to try to stop the Portland-Montreal Pipeline reversal. They put an initiative on the November 2013 ballot to block the project, but it lost narrowly at the polls.

So the city council took up the cause. In December of last year, the council voted to impose a six-month moratorium on shipping tar-sands oil out through its port. Then a council-appointed committee crafted the Clear Skies Ordinance to permanently block tar-sands shipments, which is what the council officially approved this week. The law also changes zoning rules to block the construction of twin smokestacks that would be needed to burn off bitumen-thinning chemicals before the oil could be shipped out.

Over the past few months, concerned residents met in homes and Protect South Portland grew. Meanwhile, the group Energy Citizens, backed by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s largest trade group, ran ads that said “It’s just oil. From Canada.” The oil companies hired a number of lawyers and brought public relations firms on board.

Protect South Portland spokeswoman MJ Ferrier estimates that the grassroots group was outspent by at least 6 to 1.

So how did residents win over Big Oil? “A lot of perseverance and a lot of community engagement,” Voorhees said.

After the vote, supporters of the ordinance went to a local bar, and “we raised our glasses,” Jones told Grist.

Cautious celebration

But while local activists are celebrating this week’s win, they know “this is not the end,” said Jones.

South Portland Councilor Tom Blake, who’s been a champion of the effort to protect the city from tar sands, said a legal challenge seems imminent, by either Portland Pipe Line Corp., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, or by the Canadian government. Blake had this message for the oil company and Canadian officials Monday evening: “This ordinance is the will of the people,” he said. “Do not spend millions of dollars and force the city of South Portland to do the same.”

But the oil interests are unlikely to heed his warning.

Tom Hardison, vice president of Portland Pipe Line, told reporters that the city had made a rush decision and bowed to environmental “off-oil extremists.” He added that the zoning changes amounted to a “job-killing ordinance” that prevents the city’s port from adapting to meet the energy needs of North America.

Matthew Manahan, attorney for Portland Pipe Line, told the city council before the vote that its ordinance is “illegal” and “would clearly be preempted by federal and state law.”

“The council is ignoring the law” and “ignoring science,” the lawyer added.

Air and water worries

Like the process of extracting tar-sands oil, the process of transporting it takes a huge toll on the environment. Before the heavy, almost-solid bitumen can be sent through pipelines, it has to be thinned with a concoction of liquid natural gas and other hydrocarbons. And then before it can be loaded onto ships, that concoction has to be burned off. ExxonMobil currently holds permits to build two smokestacks on South Portland’s waterfront that would do the burning.

Ferrier, a retired psychologist and a nun, joined Protect South Portland largely out of concern for what the oil companies’ plans would do to air quality in an area that has already received a “C” for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. The proposed smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “We know there is benzene in it, a known carcinogen,” said Ferrier.

Resident Andrew Parker had similar concerns. “Tonight is about children,” he said at Monday’s city council meeting. “The oil company will put poison in the air, that is a fact.”

For Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who also sits on the city council and voted in support of the ordinance, it came down to concerns about water quality. The risk of water contamination in the case of a spill far outweighed the nebulous claims about job creation.

“When I look at the economic benefit, which no seems to be able to detail, the risk seems to outweigh the benefit,” Jalbert told Grist.

The easternmost 236-mile stretch of pipeline crosses some of the most sensitive ecosystems in Maine, including the Androscoggin River, the pristine Crooked River, and Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water for 15 percent of the state’s population.

Blake, the council member, is worried that using old pipes to transport heavy bitumen could lead to a spill like the one that happened in Mayflower, Ark., in March 2013, when an ExxonMobil pipeline built in the 1940s ruptured and spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar-sands oil.

Saying “no” to tar sands is part of a bigger shift to a greener future in South Portland, Blake added. “Being a community that has been heavily dependent on petroleum, this turns a tide,” the councilor said.

He pointed to a new electric-car charging station at the city’s community center and potential plans to build a solar farm on an old landfill as steps toward a sustainable future. “I think we are starting to walk the talk,” Blake said.

Roger Drouin is a freelance journalist who covers environmental issues. When he’s not reporting or writing, he is out getting almost lost in the woods. He blogs at rogersoutdoorblog.com.

EarthFix Conversation: 25 Years Later, Scientists Remember The Exxon Valdez

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists report that orca populations there have not recovered and oil is still being found. | credit: (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn) | rollover image for more

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists report that orca populations there have not recovered and oil is still being found. | credit: (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn)

 

 

By Ahsley Ahearn, OPB

25 years ago today the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, Calif., ran aground in Prince William Sound.

11 million gallons of oil spilled out, polluting 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coastline.

At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns responded to the Exxon Valdez, and they’ve been studying oil spills ever since. They’re scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

They told EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn about their experience responding to the Exxon Valdez all those years ago.

Alan Mearns: Some places we’d go ashore and you’d see starfish that looked like they were sick, they were just kind of drifting around in the surf. And you could smell the oil too, in the places where there was plenty of it. It smelled like benzene, like you’re pumping gas at the gas station and you sniff that little bit of benzene as you pull the hose out of your car.

EarthFix: Gary, how were orcas impacted by the spill?

Gary Shigenaka: Two groups that frequent Prince William Sound crashed immediately after the spill. So since the time of the oil spill those populations have continued to be monitored and we can follow the trends and for the AB pod — the resident pod – there’s been a slow recovery. For the AT1 group, which is the transient pod, it’s been declining ever since the spill and the orca specialist for Prince William Sound, Dr. Craig Matkin, has predicted that that particular group is going to go extinct. It continues to decline with time. So it’s an unfortunate longterm legacy from the spill.

EarthFix: Some people thought the orcas would swim away, would avoid the oil spill itself, but that wasn’t actually the case, was it?

Shigenaka: What we all thought was that orcas are so smart. They will simply avoid the oiled waters. But we’ve got very good photographic evidence that shows that indeed they did not.

One photograph, an aerial photograph, shows orcas cutting through a slick and you can see where they’ve come to the surface right through the oil. There’s another shot of a pod of orcas right at the stern of the Exxon Valdez, right at the tanker.

EarthFix: What creatures were the most impacted or most harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill?

Mearns: Oh, birds. We’re talking about 200 to 300,000 I think, Gary.

Shigenaka: Yeah.

Mearns: Seabirds, mainly seabirds and some shorebirds. And of course that was the big thing you’d see in the news almost every day: pictures of an oiled bird, somebody picking it up, taking it to a wildlife rehabilitation station where they’d clean them and then hold them until they could be released.

EVOSWEB_013_oiled_bird3
Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill. Credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

 

EarthFix: SO for people who weren’t alive, weren’t reading the paper when the Exxon Valdez spill happened, what were those animals going through? What happens to a bird when it interacts with an oil slick?

Mearns: Well, first of all, even though it’s in the spring and summer it’s still cold up there. If it’s not killed by being smothered by gobs and gobs of oil, if it’s a little bit of oil, it will succumb eventually to things like pneumonia-type diseases and things like that, so it suddenly causes birds that had good insulation not to have insulation and start suffering the effects of cold conditions.

Shigenaka: And the same holds true for another of the iconic wildlife species in Prince William Sound: the sea otters. They insulate themselves with that nice thick fur pelt and they are affected in the same way by oil disrupting their ability to insulate themselves during a spill.

EarthFix: 25 years later, how is Prince William Sound? What species have recovered, how does the place look?

Mearns: Well, 14 or 15 species or resource values have recovered. The recovery started a few years after the spill with things like bald eagles. A number of them were killed off but their population rebounded. The most recent recovery was just announced was of the sea otters that we were just talking about. So between 1991-92 when we started seeing reports of recovery of a few bird species and now we’ve had about 14 or 15 species recover but there’s still some others that haven’t yet.

EarthFix: Which ones are you most concerned about, Alan, or scientists are following most closely with concern?

Mearns: The orcas are really the ones we’re most concerned about now.

EarthFix: Is the oil gone?

Mearns: No. There are still traces of oil in the shorelines. When you go out at low tide and go into some of these back bay areas with gravel and sand overlying bedrock and dig down maybe a foot sometimes you’ll hit spots with oil that is still actually fairly fresh. We’ve encountered that at a few sites that we’ve monitored over the past 25 years.

Shigenaka: That’s been one of the 25-year surprises for us is that there are pockets of relatively fresh oil remaining both in Prince William Sound and along the coast of the Alaska Peninsula and that’s something that I don’t think any of us expected 25 years later.

EarthFix: What did this spill mean for your careers? You guys were both young bucks when this happened. And now, 25 years later, when you look back, what did it mean, the Exxon Valdez?

Shigenaka: I think overall, just the notion that we have a responsibility, both as responders and as scientists to try to communicate what we do and what we know in a way that’s understandable to the people who are affected.

EarthFix: There is more oil moving through this region now – more oil coming from the tar sands of Alberta and coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to refineries here in Washington state. If I talk to you guys 25 years from now, what do you hope we’re talking about?

Mearns: One thing that I worry about and I think Gary has some other things that he worries about is a lot of this new oil is going to be going through the Aleutian Islands, the great circle route, more and more tankers leaving here or in Canada and heading across. And in the Aleutian Islands, we thought Prince William Sound was remote, well the Aleutian Islands are even more remote. Getting equipment there, getting staff, we’ve had a few experiences with spills. I guess I’m concerned that there will be more spills in that region from this increased traffic out there.

EarthFix: Or elsewhere.

Mearns: Yeah.

Shigenaka: 25 years from now I’m hoping that we have a much better handle on how these novel new oils like the tar sands oil and the Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, how they behave in the environment and what their potential impacts are to exposed organisms because frankly right now we don’t really know how the stuff behaves, both types of oil, once it gets loose in the environment and we’re only beginning to understand what potential impacts there might be for the exposed communities.

Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns are scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. They responded to the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago.