Last November, South Portland voters defeated the “Waterfront Protection Ordinance,” which aimed to stop the reversal of a pipeline that will carry Canadian tar sands oil from Montreal to South Portland harbor. In response, defying voters, the city council passed a 6 month moratorium, and the debate continues. If not for the actions of the city council, oil could start flowing immediately, and South Portland, Maine could establish itself as a vital oil transportation hub, bringing with it development, jobs, and economic growth.
The opposition to the reversal of the pipeline is based the false premise that stopping the flow of oil will prevent the drilling of the Canadian tar sands. Barrel for barrel, the tar sands oil is dirtier than light sweet crude from the Middle East. It is also more energy intensive and polluting to extract and process into fuel. Environmental groups have legitimate concerns about the extraction of the bitumen like tar sands oil. However, even if environmental groups successfully oppose every pipeline in North America, this oil will NOT stay in the ground.
Right now there are hundreds of oil drilling rigs operating in Alberta, and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated that this oil is going to get to market one way or another. Given these facts, the debate should be on how to safely and efficiently transport it. Most of the oil coming out of Alberta and North Dakota is currently being moved by rail, which is risky and inefficient. The derailment of the crude oil train in Quebec, which killed 47 people, supports the case for pipelines. Oil transported through modern, computer-controlled pipelines is far cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more reliable.
Maine cannot afford to “look the gift horse in the mouth.” One way or another, this tar sands oil will be extracted, moved, and sold. Maine can choose to benefit from this oil production, or let this economic opportunity pass us by. TransCanada announced plans to build a pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick where it would be shipped to the gulf for refining. The 2,700-mile pipeline called Energy East, would completely bypass Maine, and with it all of the growth its transportation will provide. If Maine doesn’t want these good paying energy jobs, they will end up somewhere else.
The voters of South Portland saw the potential opportunity that comes with allowing the transportation of oil through their harbor. More activity in South Portland’s harbor means more ships, more infrastructure building, more economic activity, and more city revenue. As the harbor gets busier, it will likely expand, which means construction and dredging jobs to make the harbor accessible to larger ships. Maine Maritime Academy graduates can stay closer to home since shipping jobs will be local. And this opportunity could inspire some enterprising Mainers to start their own shipping, logistics, refining, and oil services companies. However, the longer this pipeline is held up, the more likely it is that Canadians will find another dependable route to get their oil to market.
The Bakken oil basin in North Dakota is now yielding about 1 million barrels of oil every day. The economic ripple effects of this energy production have been felt all across the Upper Midwest. The unemployment rate in areas surrounding the drilling is as low as 1.6%, and there have been countless millionaires created overnight. This type of economic boom inspires growth in all surrounding industries from construction to financial services. Growth in one sector of the economy creates growth in other sectors as opportunity stimulates increased private investment – a self-reinforcing, upward economic spiral.
Examples such as the reversal of this pipeline show how environmentalists need to strike a balance between protecting the environment and economic growth. With the Keystone XL pipeline likely delayed until well after 2016, Maine has a big opportunity to capitalize on the economic boom created by oil drilling in Canada. South Portland could quickly establish itself as an integral part of North America’s energy map, providing good paying jobs and economic activity for decades to come.
Matt Bucklin is the president of Quit Tea LLC, and graduate of Colby College.