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'Big Oil Playbook' on Display in Small Town Tar Sands Fight

Industry-backed opponents show up en masse at local meeting, forcing tar sands vote to be rescheduled.

Environmentalists in Maine worry that oil execs want to ship tar sands oil from Canada to the East Coast. (photo: cc / flickr /

Exemplifying tactics outlined in a new report that dissects the oil industry's efforts to influence the tar sands debate, members of a Big Oil front group packed a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, on Monday night, forcing the meeting to be rescheduled.

The council was slated to take its first vote on the Clear Skies Ordinance, which would prohibit loading crude oil in bulk onto marine tank vessels in Portland Harbor and building or expanding terminals and other facilities for that purpose. While its ultimate aim remains the same—to keep tar sands oil out of the city—the proposal has a much narrower scope than the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that city voters rejected by a small margin last November, and is therefore expected to be less vulnerable to public opposition and court challenges.

But half an hour before Monday's meeting was scheduled to start, the council chamber in the small coastal city was already overflowing; supporters (who wore sky-blue shirts) were surprised to encounter so many opponents wearing red shirts that read, "American Energy" on the front and "SoPo Jobs" on the back. At 7:30 pm, Mayor Gerry Jalbert announced that due to safety concerns the meeting would have to be postponed.

“We’re disappointed that the oil industry came in at the 11th hour with people who don’t live in our city to shut down the City Council’s meeting,” said Mary Jane Ferrier, spokesperson for Protect South Portland, a citizen's advocacy organization. “But we’re not at all deterred and will be back in two nights to encourage the City Council to pass this straightforward ordinance to keep toxic tar sands out of our city.”


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Opponents of the ordinance also took out an ad in local newspapers this week, claiming that the ordinance "puts thousands of South Portland jobs at risk." The ad directs readers to, a site maintained by Energy Citizens, itself an "astroturf" organization supported by the American Petroleum Institute, according to the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch.

All of this seems ripped from the pages of Inside the Big Oil Playbook: Strategies and Tactics Used in the Industry's Battle to Ship Tar Sands Oil Out of Casco Bay, a report released last week by EnvironmentMaine, which describes it as "a case study of the tools and tactics Big Oil has already used, and can be expected to use in the future, to keep alive the possibility of shipping tar sands oil through Maine, other U.S. states, and large swaths of Canada."

The Playbook describes the strategies employed to defeat the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, and counsels that similar tactics will be used both in Maine and elsewhere as fossil fuel companies attempt to expand the market for tar sands oil. Activists can expect Big Oil to:

  • Spend big on consulting, advertising, and get-out-the-vote efforts
  • Downplay the role of Big Oil
  • Deny the existence of plans to bring tar sands into the region
  • "Manufacture and play up economic fears"

"Given its success in South Portland, Big Oil can be expected to employ some of the same tactics it used during its anti-ordinance campaign last fall to influence decision-makers and the public in South Portland and beyond," the report reads. "It is critical that elected officials and the public understand Big Oil’s playbook as the industry attempts to meet its massive expansion plans to more than double tar sands production by 2030."


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