Lawsuit expected after Maine city bans so-called tar sands oil from western Canada

With a potential lawsuit targeting a decision to ban tar sands oil in South Portland, the governor's energy chief said Tuesday that he hopes the state can eventually have a conversation about managing the flow of petroleum products rather than having it decided locally.

Crude from the tar sands of western Canada is fueling a surge in North American production, but environmentalists say tar sands oil is difficult to clean if spilled and dangerous to ship.

Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor's energy office, said the state is reviewing the South Portland City Council's action to keep out crude oil from western Canada. In the long term, he said he hopes the city and state officials can step back and look at the big picture when it comes to the North American energy boom.

"What I would hope is that we can step up and think about managing this transformation in a way that works for our economy and also works for our environment," he said.

The zoning changes approved by the City Council on a 6-1 vote Monday night prohibit offloading of bulk crude onto ocean tankers and prohibit construction of related infrastructure. The measures target all crude oil, but environmental activists were mostly concerned about the tar sands oil.

Operators of the Portland Pipe Line, which currently pumps crude from South Portland to Montreal, Quebec, say there's no current plan to reverse the flow to allow the tar sands oil into Maine. But environmentalists fear that the pipeline's operator could be forced to do so once tar sand oil arrives in Montreal.

The Working Waterfront Coalition said it's considering a lawsuit on constitutional grounds as the most likely means to challenging zoning changes. "That's a dangerous precedent to have a small minority of people control interstate commerce," said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

But Ivy Frignoca from the Conservation Law Foundation countered that the ordinance was carefully crafted to withstand legal scrutiny. She said the organization stands ready to face any challenges.

The day after the vote, environmental groups and citizen activists who pressed for action savored their victory over what they described as big oil interests.

"It's a signal that it's no longer business as usual for them. Ordinary citizens working together can call them to account, and we are here to bear witness to that," Mary-Jane Ferrier from Protect South Portland said at a news conference in Portland, where oil tanks in neighboring South Portland served as the backdrop.