It’s on in Portland, Maine, where activists have successfully organized to get an anti-tar sands ordinance on the November ballot. Members of Protect South Portland are rallying together in an attempt to keep tar sands out of their city by cutting it off at the head, making it impossible for major oil companies to transport and process this controversial oil product within their city. The results of their organizing could prove explosive not just for Maine, but for the Northeast and the rest of the country.
While many people have heard of Keystone XL and the significant ongoing controversy as communities on the path of the pipeline’s proposed route protest, tar sands oil is actually a larger issue than that. Port cities like Portland are facing their own controversies as oil companies establish shipping terminals and expand their operations, and in the Northeast, some activists are concerned about the existing network of oil pipelines and the fact that it could be converted to carry tar sands oil.
In Portland, activists are trying to keep oil companies out with a zoning change that would make it impossible for them to conduct their operations in the port, and oil companies aren’t happy. Both sides are gearing up for a campaign that will likely prove vicious, and could involve a blitz of advertising.
On one side, grassroots activists plan on going door to door, using their limited resources to reach out and create community connections. Meanwhile, publicists hired by the oil companies will be doing their own outreach, blanketing the community in fliers, political advertising and more.
The City Council members who unanimously supported the decision to put the ordinance on the ballot spoke eloquently about the need for clean air and water in Portland, addressing the concerns brought up by a number of residents worried about the safety of their community if tar sands come to town. Activists point out that there are already safety concerns with tar sands oil, and these are exacerbated with older pipelines not originally designed for this use. Since tar sands oil needs to be chemically treated and heated, the risk of leaks and other problems is much higher, and that’s a big worry when a pipeline runs directly under residential communities.
What happens in Portland could have ramifications beyond the city’s borders. Elsewhere in Maine and across the Northeast, communities are facing similar issues as oil companies set up the framework for the transportation of tar sands oil. Oil companies want to be prepared for future eventualities, and with tar sands oil becoming so controversial, many want to move quietly now rather than waiting until they’re forced to move in the open. Savvy communities like Portland are forcing the issue into the public eye and raising awareness, which is good for activists, although oil companies definitely aren’t delighted.
If Portland is successful in passing the proposed ordinance, it will undoubtedly face litigation from oil companies, and it will also be setting a precedent for other cities to follow if they want to keep tar sands oil out and retain their fundamental character and community.
Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian.