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Environmentalists are doing everything they can to prevent the transport of heavy crude known as tar sands oil through the U.S. The debate has become the focus of protests, television ads and lobbying efforts nationwide, and Maine is no exception. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports on a small but significant battle against a proposal to transport tar sands oil from Canada to a port on the coast of Maine.
SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: It started with a citizens' petition for a zoning ordinance. Those last two words alone are enough to make most people's eyes glaze over. But the intent of this one is to keep tar sands oil from being piped from Canada to the coast of Maine and exported to world markets. Around New England, more than three dozen towns have passed non-binding resolutions to go tar sands free. But when residents of South Portland, Maine vote November 5th, their decision could do more than send a message. Passage of the ordinance would limit petroleum storage tanks and pumping facilities on the city's waterfront.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
MARLA PASTRANA: I'm Marla with Protect South Portland, about the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is this for the Waterfront - yeah, you don't need to even give me that. We're all set. We're going to vote for that one.
PASTRANA: Excellent. Thank you...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.
SHARON: Marla Pastrana is knocking on doors in support of the ordinance even though there is no formal plan to bring tar sands oil to South Portland. The city has become a flashpoint in an emotionally charged debate because it's the headquarters for the Portland Pipe Line Corporation. The company operates a 236-mile long pipeline that stretches across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and ends in Montreal. Its CEO has repeatedly expressed interest in someday using the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands to the Maine coast. Residents worry about the potential for a spill.
NATALIE WEST: The ordinance is a local land use ordinance that shapes the future of our community.
SHARON: Attorney Natalie West is the co-author of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that would prevent the construction of a tar sands export terminal and two related combustion units on the city's waterfront, something Portland Pipe Line has proposed in the past.
WEST: It will have the effect of preventing tar sands oil from being pumped into this community, stored near our schools and exported from our waterfront.
SHARON: This is a place with beaches and a lighthouse, and where lobstermen still etch out a living from the water. But it's also home to one of the largest oil ports on the East Coast, as Tim Winters of Sprague Energy pointed out on a recent bus tour of several oil terminals in the city.
TIM WINTERS: That's our ship berth over there where we get about a hundred ships and barges a year that bring fuel oil and jet fuel and diesel fuel into our facility.
SHARON: More than a billion gallons of petroleum products flow through South Portland every year. And that's why Sprague and a coalition of petroleum-related businesses, labor and industry groups are waging an aggressive campaign against the ordinance. They say it's so broadly written it will disrupt existing business, drive up the cost of gasoline and put hundreds of jobs at risk. Burton Russell is vice president of operations at Sprague.
BURTON RUSSELL: It absolutely is a wholesale attack on the petroleum industry, quite clearly. It doesn't single out any particular fuel. It talks about all petroleum distribution.
SHARON: The ordinance has also divided South Portland officials. Addressing a recent rally of opponents, Rob Schreiber of the city's planning board said he's no fan of tar sands but he doesn't support the proposed ordinance, either.
ROB SCHREIBER: As a pro-union, tree-hugging, Obamacare-loving, liberal Democrat, I can tell you that voting no does not mean that you are in favor of tar sands.
SHARON: Some opponents say what's been lost in the debate is the fact that Maine and the U.S. get much of their oil and gas from Canada, including what South Portland residents, both for and against the ordinance, purchase at the pump. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.