A pipeline company has withdrawn its legal challenge to the “Clear Skies Ordinance” that Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic (EAC) helped conceive in partnership with the community of South Portland, Maine. The withdrawal is a win for advocates who have fought to protect South Portland from the harmful impacts of a pipeline project, and an example of how communities can successfully push back against polluting fossil fuel projects.
The case concerned the re-tooling of a pipeline that extends from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec. The pipeline was originally built to transport crude oil from Maine’s coast to Canada—but in recent years, as Canadian tar sands oil production had grown sharply, the pipeline owners initiated a plan to reverse its flow.
Doing so would require the loading of crude oil into ocean tankers along Maine’s coast, resulting in hazardous air pollution. The companies planned to control these emissions through vapor combustion units, which themselves would release tons of volatile organic compounds into the air each year. The project would also affect the aesthetics of the waterfront and impair the city’s desire to move towards a more residential and recreational character.
In 2012, residents and regional environmental groups launched a campaign to halt the project. Forming a group called Protect South Portland, they collaborated with Vermont Law School’s EAC to conceive an ordinance that would protect the city from the project’s potential impacts. A strong outpouring of support led the city council in 2014 to pass this “Clear Skies Ordinance” on a six-to-one vote.
“The ordinance protects the community from the myriad of impacts caused by loading crude oil onto ocean tankers. The city got to decide whether to accept those impacts or not,” said former EAC senior attorney and professor Ken Rumelt, now of the Morgan and Morgan Complex Litigation Group, who led the effort to research the legal issues and advised clients on how to draft a strong ordinance that would withstand legal challenges.
Within weeks of its passing, the Portland Montreal Pipeline Company and American Waterways Operators filed a claim in federal court to reverse the ordinance. The city ultimately prevailed at trial. The pipeline company then appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard from the city, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the State of Maine, and the Biden Administration that the Ordinance passed legal muster. Last week, after a six-year battle and a brief filed in favor of the city by the Biden Administration, the company dropped the lawsuit.
“This is really a landmark victory. It shows that communities don’t have to accept dirty fossil fuel projects,” said EAC director and professor Jim Murphy, adding that local governments and states often face weighty constitutional issues when trying to regulate energy infrastructure that spans state and international borders. “What happened in South Portland shows other communities that they can stand up against big oil and win.”