2013-12-06 / Letters

The post-WPO learning curve

To the editor:

South Portland is waking up politically. This is one outcome of the high-visibility campaign for and against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The decision on how to handle the issue of tar sands being loaded onto tankers from a reversed-flow Portland-Montreal Pipeline has now returned to the South Portland City Council. At least half, and possibly a majority, of South Portland voters expect that the still-uncertain council process will yield an alternative to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that will be less vulnerable to criticism and yet accomplish the goal of preventing pipeline’s flow-reversal and tankloading plans. As the clock ticks under the temporary protection of a yet-to-be-approved moratorium, it is worth a brief review of how we got here and where we stand in terms of learning curves and deliberative democracy.

The tar-sands issue presented itself to our community in 2009 when the Portland-Montreal Pipeline first applied for and was granted permits by the South Portland Planning Board to build the infrastructure needed to accommodate reversed flow and to load tankers with Canadian crude. Crude from Canada is very likely to include Alberta tar sands since this source is targeted for peak extraction in 2018 through tens of billions of dollars of investment by Portland-Montreal Pipeline’s parent corporations. Local municipalities lack the jurisdiction to regulate what flows through a pipe or to govern pipeline safety, but South Portland retains jurisdiction over other arenas, including what happens at the end of the pipeline, through land use provisions and environmental regulations that would effectively prohibit this new plan for flow reversal and tanker loading.

One such provision, The Shoreland Overlay Ordinance, codified in 1991, imposes 20-foot limits on structure height on piers and wharves. This law should have prevented Portland-Montreal Pipeline from obtaining its 2009 permit to build larger 70-foot combustion towers at Bug Light, but the planning board approved the permit anyway. This code enforcement glitch caught the attention of several citizens who were aware, well ahead of others, of weaknesses in interpreting the code and of what reversedflow means, and how important this decision is for South Portland and greater Portland residents beyond what the planning board apparently foresaw and allowed. They took action, at first gathering signatures to ostensibly arm the South Portland City Council with evidence of popular support to draft a new zoning ordinance to prevent this plan from being permitted another time. But councilors faced a steep learning curve and had to move fast to draft such an ordinance – faster than they probably expected or were prepared for.

While they deliberated, other citizens, including experienced land use attorneys, drafted the Waterfront Protection Ordinance as a head start. The council could have adopted this head start and tweaked it, maybe modifying some of the language that offended those who were otherwise unaffected by Portland-Montreal Pipeline’s flow reversal plan. It could have constructed an ordinance of its own as an alternative. Instead, it did not draft its own ordinance and rejected the Waterfront Protection Ordinance by vote on Aug. 19, referring it to the voters as-is.

As the election season unfolded, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance issue (perhaps predictably) became abstracted to follow the same well-worn fault lines that divide our nation in its ongoing culture wars. Whether by default or by design, the issue took on elements of conservative vs. liberal, regulation vs. laissez faire, environment vs. jobs, etc. The Waterfront Protection Ordinance became framed as an unprovoked and far-reaching assault on the working waterfront. Both sides bandied the word “misinformation” to paint the other side, and by Nov. 5 it was apparent that much confusion still reigned over what the Waterfront Protection Ordinance meant. Some who spoke against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance made pre-election claims that it was too broad or indirect and affected too much other business activity in its effort to prevent flow reversal and tar sand export from the pipeline. This would imply that a more narrowly targeted ordinance would be acceptable to these folks. Others who voted against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance have claimed that they did so not because they approve of reverse-flow and tar sands export, but because they trust(ed) Portland-Montreal Pipeline’s claim that no such plans are in the works. They believed its pre-election gesture of withdrawing one of its state-granted permits as, in the words of Portland Pipeline CEO Larry Wilson, “one more good-faith commitment to this city that we do not have a pending or proposed, or let alone imminent, tar sands project.” Now in the wake of the election, the company is embracing the language of “educating” the council and the South Portland population on “oil sands energy supplies.” Clearly, pipeline reversal and tar sands export was a goal prior to the election and still is.

In some ways, South Portland is at square one again, but in others ways it is not. The South Portland City Council is faced once again with the task of crafting an ordinance that reflects popular will to prohibit tar sands handling and export from the port, or that permits such a plan to proceed whether by design or neglect. On the other hand, both the councilors and the voters of South Portland are more aware of this complicated global issue that has come to rest on its doorstep, and these voters will be learning much more about tar sands and the pipeline’s long-term plans in the ensuing weeks and months. As councilors deliberate, South Portland citizens continue to learn and to activate much more than when this issue first arose.

An important side-issue regarding perceptions of civic due process also emerged during the election. It strikes me as strange that several speakers at public meetings, including some city councilors, continue to refer to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance referendum as a circumvention of civic process, as if the “proper” (or only) channel of deliberative democracy is legislation by elected officials. For me, having lived in several western states for much of my life, it is not unusual to see as many as 20 ballot initiatives and referenda on each ballot. Maybe part of South Portland’s political awakening is embracing, rather than scoffing at, initiatives and referenda as very much a civic due process of deliberative democracy. Sometimes legislation responds effectively to public sentiment. Sometimes legislators are hamstrung or unduly influenced by one lobbying group or another. We entrust them to do the right thing for us and for our city, but at the same time we should trust ourselves to become informed and engaged in local and global political issues that affect us and that we affect.

So as this process unfolds, we may yet see popular sentiment and wise leadership reflected in the council’s deliberations, or we may witness new initiatives in which voters assume a greater role of deliberative selfgovernance. In either case, our more evolved and educated populace will have a greater capacity to face the pipeline’s tar sand export plan directly and knowledgeably this time around.

Eben Rose
South Portland

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