In My Backyard


The tar sands debate – dark and dismal – always seemed focused on someplace far away: the Province of Alberta, Nebraska, West Texas.  But en sotto voce, plans have been taking shape right out my back door.

The Casco Bay is the maritime port for Eastern Canada.  Into this year round deep-water port, oil tankers arrive daily to unload their crude and then ship it by pipeline 236 miles north to Canada.  Since 1941 – for almost three generations – over 4 billion barrels of crude oil have been pumped northward along the Portland-Montreal Pipeline.


It is no engineering feat to realize that a pipeline can flow in either direction.  And as the Keystone XL pipeline became embroiled, rumors began to surface for shipping the tar sands oil east, from Alberta to Quebec then into Vermont and New Hampshire for export through the Gulf of Maine.

The pipeline can move 600,000 gallons per day.  Its terminus is South Portland.  The oil tank farm lies across the street.  Tar sands would come here.  Not without a fight.


The Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company has made no announcement of plans to reverse the pipeline.  None, officially, but a strong grass roots coalition – raising voice from Vermont to South Portland – has been preemptive in resisting the possibility.

In South Portland, it is a zoning issue.  On 5 November there is a referendum up for a vote.  The citizen initiated Waterfront Protection Ordinance states that within the Shipyard District, the permitted use would include “facilities for the unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland” but “there shall be no enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities….”

If you ask any of the activists in favor of Waterfront Protection, they make plain that the existing crude oil business is fine – the inbound unloading of tankers – but there should be no expansion that allows the outbound loading of tankers.  Tar sands is the issue, and the related toxic fumes, emissions, and the very real risk of an oil spill.  The high bitumen content of tar sands makes clean up difficult by an order of magnitude.

In debate, plain language is anything but, and big oil is funding the movement against Waterfront Protection. The Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company, which operates quietly out of a small red brick building over on Hill Street, and does have a sterling record of safety, is a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil Corporation.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid,” is a slogan proven to win elections, and that is the crux of their argument.  Upon a faulty premise, they have built a case carefully, and are broadcasting misinformation widely in glossy mass mailings, that arrive weekly.  They are spending a reported $275,000 in their campaign against the ordinance.

They paid Charles Lawton, a local economist, $15,000 to quantify the impact of the ordinance shutting down all oil-related business.  (Bear in mind, the ordinance clearly states that the status quo is fine, and only the expansion is restricted.)  Given the premise of all operations ceasing, the economist logically projected over the next decade 5,600 jobs would be lost and $252 million dollars in earnings would vanish; the “economic multiplier” would impact the wider community to the amount of $26.6 million annually, eliminating about 250 jobs, $12 million in income, and $9.4 million in tax revenues.

In the 16 October edition of the Portland Press Herald, a columnist called this report, “a scare tactic masquerading as a fact.  Pretty slick, huh? One minute Lawton is talking hypothetically about a waterfront sans workers – and the next his gloomy forecast is attached, as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise, to a “yes” vote on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.”

You have to wonder how Lawton regards this distortion, and what to make of his quote from the article : “I’m not uncomfortable with what I delivered…[but] I can’t say how it’s been represented in ads or handouts or fliers or whatever.”   Is the public nothing more than a bunch of rats being lead through a dirty maze?  Independent thought and fact checking are crucial.

Fear is an easy message to sell.  Whether it is true or not seems hardly the issue.  Big Oil has reportedly hired youths to go door to door, telling people they also want to protect the waterfront but the language is too restrictive.  “It’s just the wording is wrong.”

Now firefighters statewide have raised their voices against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.  Their union also says the wording is wrong, and would restrict companies from upgrading for safety requirements.  Really?

Bill McKibben, a bright light and outspoken environmental activist has said, “The Portland pipeline isn’t some obscure local issue — it’s a fuse leading straight to one of the most dangerous carbon bombs on the planet.”

A description of this “carbon bomb” – referred to as the most destructive project on earth – can be found at the web site :

Alberta Oilsands-iStockphoto-Thinkstock-400x239

The Alberta Boreal Forest, under which the oil is embedded, is equivalent to the size of England; the deforestation is so vast it can be seen from outer space.

The industrial process is massively consumptive of resources: four barrels of water, four tons of earth, and energy equal to three barrels of oil are required to extract one barrel of oil. but-thousands-flock-here-to-make-real-money-in-the-oil-sands--where-creating-synthetic-crude-begins-in-the-strip-mine

Ninety percent of water used in tar sands extraction cannot be returned to the Athabasca River due to quality issues.

The Tar Sands contain 17% more carbon than other types of crude oil, and the extraction process emits as much as four times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling.once-the-rough-oil-is-pulled-from-the-sand-it-will-get-sent-to-an-upgrader-like-suncors-here-on-the-athabasca-river--this-is-one-of-the-sites-where-the-oil-from-the-oil-sands-is-converted-into-synthetic-crude

First Nations communities living close to the oil sands or downstream on the Athabasca River are suffering from higher-than-normal cancer levels and illness.

The facts of the tar sands are nightmarish, and its scale is overwhelming.  This is an important moment for the members of our community to take a stand.  The question before us, at its most basic, might be framed as whether, as a community, we want to remain dependent upon the fossil fuel economy, or shall we pursue a future that is restorative, that is abundant rather than austere, that embraces creativity as a means to discovery, and that teaches our children to think for themselves and neither follow blindly nor let fear fuel their decisions.

3 Comments on “In My Backyard”

  1. Wendy Hebb says:

    brilliant essay; horrifying situation. Thank you for speaking out so clearly.

    Wendy Hebb Program Director Maine Grain Alliance cell: 207-620-0697

    Join Our Email: Kneading Conference Join Our Email: Kneading Conference West

  2. bam says:

    this breaks my heart. your clarity is brilliant. and horrifies.

  3. Jane says:

    Thank you for all this. It is a real challenge to come together as a community to figure it all out. There are so many issues and voices to try to make it happen. Keep at it..J

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