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South Portland, Maine Wins Landmark Case Upholding Local Anti-Pipeline Ordinance

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The city of South Portland, Maine and environmental groups are praising a federal court ruling that a local ordinance banning bulk loading of tar sands/oil sands crude onto coastal tankers does not violate the U.S. constitution.

The ruling upholds an ordinance that “effectively blocked” a pipeline company from “reversing the flow of its 236-mile underground pipeline that has carried foreign crude from harbour terminals in South Portland to refineries in Montreal” since the Second World War, the Portland Press-Herald reports.

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“Faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil being loaded onto marine tank vessels in the city and threatening the health of the residents and preventing redevelopment of the waterfront, the City Council prohibited this new activity,” said Mayor Linda Cohen in a statement. “We are pleased that the court upheld the ordinance.”

“Today’s decision is a huge win for the city of South Portland, and it proves that local action can make a difference,” added Sean Mahoney, executive vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation of Maine, which helped draft the ordinance.

“Big oil tried every legal trick in the book to try and invalidate this ordinance and they lost on every count,” he added. “We believe this decision can be a model for other communities to protect local interests from those who would seek to do harm. As we are seeing every day now, the law matters.”

In his ruling, District Court Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. said the decision should not be seen as a commentary on the wisdom of the ordinance. “It is not charged with determining whether the city of South Portland should have adopted the ordinance; only whether it legally could do so,” he wrote. “Whether the enactment of a local law that effectively puts a lawful local business out of business is good public policy falls within the aegis of the duly-elected representatives of the citizenry of South Portland.”

During the four-day trial in June, officials from Portland Pipe Line had argued that crude oil supplies from Alberta, Manitoba, and North Dakota destined for a refinery in Montreal had “all but eliminated demand for foreign supplies” routed through South Portland, the Press Herald recalls. That meant the company’s future depended on reversing the flow of the pipeline and treating the town as an export point for North American supplies.

“South Portland contended that the ordinance was needed to protect public health and the environment and preserve traditional land use authority to promote future development consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan,” the local paper notes. The city enacted its Clear Skies ordinance in 2014, prompting the company to file suit in February 2015. The case has cost the city US$2.1 million in legal fees so far.

This is really a huge deal,” writes Energy Mix Productions Director Shelley Kath, who previously worked with local activist groups in New England. “It’s a bigger deal than it seems when one recalls that the Portland-Montreal pipeline is already in the ground, and that tar sands oil already makes its way to Montreal on Enbridge Line 9.”

But she adds the fight might not be over: “The Big Oil parent companies of this pipeline will no doubt appeal this decision in the U.S. in order to keep the option open later to reverse the pipeline, should they continue to be unsuccessful with other efforts to push pipelines to coastlines.”