Council seeks more information on policy that would prohibit city from purchasing tar sands oil, styrofoam and plastic bottles
Published Date Written by Craig LyonsThe City Council felt like it wasn’t ready to make a decision on a proposed municipal purchasing policy that would have blocked buying tar sands oil, bottled beverages and polystyrene containers.
The council viewed a resolution that recommends the city manager modify the city’s purchasing policies. It was meant as a directive to not buy any tar sands oil, polystyrene foam and plastic bottles for municipal use in an effort to further reduce the city’s carbon footprint. The resolution was referred back to the Transportation, Energy and Sustainability Committee to help answer questions brought up during the council’s Wednesday night meeting.
“I wish I had some more information,” said Councilor Nick Mavodones, and there’s some additional information on tar sands and the city’s fuel purchasing habits that he’d like to see before he votes on instituting any administrative policy
“The tar sands portion of this policy is not ready for council action yet,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic, though he was ready to support the purchasing prohibition for plastic bottles and foam containers. He said its seemed there was some confusion about what the tar sands policy would do.
Councilor David Marshall said he understands the request for the other councilors’ request for more information because he didn’t realize how much of the backup material wasn’t included in the packet and that the staff member who worked with the committee didn’t attend the meeting Monday night to answer questions.
Marshall said, during a press conference earlier on Wednesday, the city has been committed to reducing its carbon footprint and taking steps to convert many of its municipal buildings to natural gas from fuel oil. He said tar sands oil was a particular concern to the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee because it requires more carbon emissions for the extraction and transportation of the fuel.
The policy was modeled after similar purchasing commitments used by businesses like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, eBay and Patagonia. Bellingham, Wash., adopted a resolution as well.
Marshall said the committee worked with the city’s sustainability coordinator to ensure that modifying Portland’s purchasing policies could be done.
City Manager Mark Rees said if the council passed the resolution, he would do research to find the potential impact on the city.
The purchasing policy met opposition from people in the petroleum industry who thought it would be difficult and costly to implement.
Earlier in the day, the city’s pledge to refuse tar sands oil was lauded by environmental activists during a press conference. Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, presented Mayor Michael Brennan and Marshall a petition signed by nearly 2,500 Portland residents who want the city to become tar sands free.
Brennan said the council easily could have passed a resolution in opposition to the pipeline but it’d simply be a symbolic gesture.
“We took a different step,” he said.
Figdor said a critical element of the proposed policy is that it affects the tar sands oil market and Portland and states clearly it’s not wanted.
Brennan said the city has made progress during the past few years to reduce its carbon footprint and instituting the new policy would continue to move that initiative forward. He said it’s part of a larger goal to make Portland a less fossil fuel dependent city.
In 1996, Brennan said an oil discharge happened in Portland Harbor when the Julie N. struck the former Million Dollar Bridge and spilled more than 180,000 gallons of fuel that went up the Fore River and into Stroudwater. He said the city wants to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again in the harbor or occur in Sebago Lake.
Portland and the whole state treasure clean water, said Brennan, and he thinks these policies keep the city moving in that direction and will prevent any environmental tragedies.
“Tar sands oil is dirty and dangerous,” Figdor said.
Unlike conventional fuel oil, tar sands is a sticky, peanut butter like substance, said Figdor, and because the substance is so thick — even while diluted for transportation — enormous pressure is needed to move tar sands through pipelines. She said the high pressure needed creates a greater risk for ruptures in the pipelines.
Tar sands is nearly impossible to clean up, said Figdor, and its density usually causes it to sink in water. She said conventional tools used to clean up oil spills are largely ineffective against tar sands.
In July 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands through Marshall, Mich., burst, said Figdor, and spilled more than 100 million gallons of oil. She said the spill led to the contamination of 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and the Environmental Protection Agency declared it permanently polluted.
“There is no solution to actually getting the oil out of the river,” she said.
Figdor said a spill would be devastating to both Casco Bay and Sebago Lake.
Eliot Stanley, of the Sebago Lake Anglers Association, said the Crooked River is the principle source of water for Sebago Lake and the Portland pipeline crosses it six times on its way from Canada to South Portland.
“We have six direct risks there,” he said.
The pipeline is more than 60 years old, said Stanley, and there’s concern that it could rupture.
Given that Sebago Lake is the source of water for more than 200,000 people in the Greater Portland area, Stanley said, everyone is in trouble if a tar sands spill occurs.