For the last decade, the world’s largest oil corporations have developed one of the most extensive industrial operations in the world: the extraction and processing of tar sands (natural bitumen) in northeastern Alberta, Canada. Tar sands oil (diluted bitumen) is more carbon intensive than conventional oil and nearly impossible to clean up when spilled into waterways.
Public opposition to the extraction and transportation of tar sands oil has grown significantly in the last five years, most notably in response to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would pipe tar sands oil through the heartland of America, across valuable cropland and one of the nation’s most critical aquifers. In response to mounting grassroots resistance against Keystone XL and other proposals to transport tar sands, the American Petroleum Institute (API), Big Oil’s Washington, D.C., lobbying arm, has led aggressive “astroturf” (or phony grassroots) campaigns to try to thwart local opposition to the industry’s tar sands plans.
South Portland, Maine, became what the Bangor Daily News described as “ground zero” for the tar sands debate when residents, in partnership with several statewide environmental groups, qualified a ballot initiative to stop the oil industry from establishing Portland Harbor as the U.S. East Coast shipping hub for tar sands’ entry into the global energy market.[i] In response, Big Oil launched a massive, $750,000 campaign to defeat the initiative in a city of just 25,000 people, spending the equivalent of $168 for every “no” vote. Big Oil ultimately prevailed by a margin of 192 votes.
Big Oil’s campaign to defeat the South Portland ballot initiative, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, is 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.
As citizens and decision-makers consider tar sands projects in Maine, and throughout the United States and Canada, it is imperative to understand the tactics the oil industry is using to advance its interests in the Alberta tar sands.
Big Oil’s campaign to defeat the Waterfront Protection Ordinance used four main strategies.
1) Spend big to defeat the ordinance.
Big Oil spared no expense in its effort to defeat the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.
- Opponents of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance spent nearly $750,000 on the campaign to influence votes in the city of South Portland (population 25,000) — or $168 for every “no” vote on the ordinance. To put this spending in perspective, consider that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $184 for every vote in his favor in one of the most expensive self-financed political campaigns in U.S. history. In contrast, President Barack Obama’s nationwide presidential campaign spent $16 for every vote cast in his favor in 2012.
- Big Oil’s campaign strategy was shaped by high-priced out-of-state consultants. The anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign spent $133,000 on consulting, including more than $63,000 of in-kind consulting services provided by API.
- Big Oil interests also hired well-connected political insiders, such as Dan Demeritt, former communications director for Gov. Paul LePage, and New Hampshire political publicist Jim Merrill, who directed President George W. Bush’s 2000 general election campaign in the Granite State.
2) Downplay the role of Big Oil.
To give its campaign the gloss of public support, Big Oil highlighted the faces and voices of prominent local officials and businessmen in its campaign ads, mailers and websites. But behind the scenes, out-of-state corporations and global experts at engineering “astroturf” campaigns were hard at work orchestrating the campaign.
- Out-of-state interests provided more than 70 percent of the in-kind and cash donations made to the anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign. (See Figure ES-1.) API was the largest donor, contributing more than $270,000 in cash and in-kind services—enough to cover one-third of the anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign.
- Even some of the “in-state” oil interests that contributed to the anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance effort represented predominantly out-of-state interests. For example, the ultimate parents of Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, the largest in-state contributor to the anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign, are Texas-based ExxonMobil, Canadian Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil Limited and Canadian energy giant Suncor Energy.
Figure ES-1. The Majority of Anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance Contributions Came from Out-Of-State Interests*
*Sprague Operating Resources and Irving Oil both have headquarters in New Hampshire and therefore considered “out-of-state,” despite the fact that they own some facilities on South Portland’s waterfront. On the other hand, Portland Pipe Line Corp., headquartered in Portland, is considered “in-state” despite being majority-owned by ExxonMobil, a multinational corporation based in Texas.
- The anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign’s “grassroots” outreach was also controlled from afar. Big Oil retained the Maryland-based consulting firm DDC Advocacy to provide nearly $172,000 in canvassing services during the campaign. DDC Advocacy advertises that its “reach extends across the United States and around the world” and encourages clients to “Hire us. We speak the local dialect.”
- Big Oil also hired out-of-state contractors for direct mail and robo-call services, including firms in Iowa, Minnesota and Virginia.
3) Deny the existence of any plans to bring tar sands to Maine.
Big Oil’s campaign sought to divert attention from the dangers of tar sands oil by claiming that the industry had no active plans to bring the oil through South Portland. This strategy was made explicit in Big Oil’s campaign mailers and advertisements:
- In an open letter to South Portland residents, the anti-Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaign stated, “Some of you may be concerned about tar sands, which may have prompted you to sign a Waterfront Protection Ordinance petition. But the ordinance is not about tar sands.” The campaign website also claims that “[t]he pipeline has said publicly on many occasions that it has no current or pending reversal plan.”
- In a November mailing to South Portland residents, the Maine Energy Marketers Association and the Portland Pipe Line Corp. also said, “Let us be clear – there is no such project proposed, pending or imminent.” (See Figure ES-2.)
Recent events, however, suggest that the potential for tar sands oil shipments is alive and well.
- · Less than 10 months before the vote on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, Portland Pipe Line Corp. CEO Larry Wilson told Vermont lawmakers that “while we do not have a project today, we’re aggressively pursuing every opportunity to make use of these excellent assets, and that includes the possibility of reversing our pipeline, and it includes the possibility of moving oil from the western Canadian oil sands.”
- In February 2014, an API-backed front group called “Energy Citizens” took out ads in three Portland-area newspapers. The advertisements claimed that tar sands oil is “just oil” and that “crude oil from oil sands can be safely and easily transported by pipeline.” At the time of this writing, these ads continue to run weekly in area newspapers, and the oil industry continues to publish op-eds and letters to the editor in area newspapers with the same message.
- In March 2014, Canadian oil giant Enbridge secured approval from the Canadian government to carry tar sands oil through the final segment of its pipeline that connects Alberta’s tar sands to a refinery in Montreal—the same refinery at the terminus of the Portland-Montreal pipeline.
Figure ES-2. A Pre-Election Mailing Promising No Plans for Tar Sands Oil Exports, and Post-Election Pro-Tar Sands Oil Newspaper Ad
4) Manufacture and play up economic fears.
Big Oil’s campaign sought to frighten Mainers about possible economic impacts of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance by using misleading studies and false claims to exaggerate the impact of the ordinance on South Portland businesses.
- Big Oil paid $15,000 to Planning Decisions, Inc., for a study on the economic impact—including purported increases in oil prices, lost jobs, and lost tax revenue—of the ballot initiative. The study assumed that the ordinance would lead to the complete shutdown of the port’s oil terminal, a finding based on no objective evidence, but solely on the assertions of “some oil terminal operators” that the ordinance would prevent them from continuing to operate.
- Big Oil’s core message was that defeat of the ordinance would “save our working waterfront.” But the reality is that South Portland’s waterfront is home to many industries and businesses that would be threatened by tar sands oil shipments—including the fishing and lobstering and tourism and recreation industries. More than 200 South Portland local businesses, including companies in these industries, voiced their opposition to tar sands during the campaign.
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. 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.
[i] Seth Koenig, “South Portland Becomes Ground Zero for Maine Tar Sands Debate,” Bangor Daily News, 20 August 2013.