By Jordan Schneider
For the last decade, the world’s most powerful oil companies have aggressively pursued plans to establish a U.S. shipping route to move tar sands oil from the land-locked wilderness of western Canada to the world market. However, strong public opposition to the extraction and transportation of tar sands oil—which is notoriously dirty and nearly impossible to clean up once spilled into waterways—has thwarted or stalled the construction of key shipping infrastructure, including TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe tar sands oil through the heartland of America, across valuable cropland and one of the nation’s most critical aquifers.
Now, the industry is considering shipping tar sands oil east across Canada and through an aging pipeline in Maine to reach the Atlantic Coast, an idea that has Mainers up in arms. In South Portland, Maine, a city of 25,000 people, which sits at the end of the pipeline, officials are considering an ordinance to prohibit the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands oil, and the building of export infrastructure along the city’s waterfront.
The new ordinance marks round two in South Portland’s fight to prevent Big Oil from shipping tar sands oil through Maine and out of nearby Casco Bay. Last summer, Big Oil spent an astonishing $750,000 to narrowly defeat a South Portland ballot initiative, known as the “Waterfront Protection Ordinance,” that would have prevented the handling of tar sands oil in Portland Harbor.
As we document in our new report, Inside the Big Oil Playbook, the industry used many of the same tools and tactics to defeat the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that it has used in other battles over tar sands oil. Namely, the industry used “astroturf” (or phony grassroots) tactics designed to convince South Portland residents that opposition to the ordinance was homegrown. Big Oil also hired expensive out-of-state consultants to design a massive media campaign to stir up unfounded economic fears. Just as in other campaigns, the industry also set up a coalition (Save Our Working Waterfront) that appeared to be locally generated, but was actually backed by large, out-of-state oil companies and other interests, including the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s powerful lobbying arm in Washington, D.C.
As South Portland considers a new “Clear Skies Ordinance” this summer, the city can expect more opposition from Big Oil as it fights to keep alive the possibility of shipping tar sands oil through Maine. Fortunately, last year’s battle over the Waterfront Protection Ordinance provided a valuable look at the tools and tactics that Big Oil uses to shape public discourse, and knowing this “playbook” will not only help South Portland residents recognize and counter the industry’s next profit-driven public relations campaign, but it may also prove instructive for other communities facing threats from tar sands oil shipments.