Foley Hoag Secures Victory for City of South Portland in Lawsuit Challenging its Clear Skies Ordinance

Federal Court Rules Statute Banning the Bulk Loading of Crude Oil Is Constitutional

August 27, 2018

Foley Hoag LLP successfully represented the City of South Portland, Maine in a federal lawsuit aiming to overturn the City’s Clear Skies Zoning Ordinance. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maine issued its decision on Friday, August 24, 2018, finding that the local zoning ordinance, which prohibits the bulk loading of crude oil onto ships in South Portland’s harbor, does not violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The victory comes after three years of litigation.

In its decision, the Court concluded that “the City Council enacted an ordinance that would block a tar sands project like the one PPLC proposed because it had concerns about the air quality, water quality, aesthetics, and redevelopment risks of crude oil loading in general, and the transporting and coastal loading of crude oil derived from tar sands in particular.” This is one of the first times that a federal court has ruled that cities and towns can prohibit crude oil pipeline and loading facilities through local zoning without being preempted by any federal statute or violating federalism principles in the Constitution.

South Portland prohibited the loading of bulk crude oil into ships on its waterfront in 2014, as domestic demand for imported oil was declining and production in the oil sands of western Canada was increasing. In December 2017, the Court ruled in the City’s favor on eight of nine counts – that the ordinance was not preempted by the federal Pipeline Safety Act, the federal Ports and Waterways Safety Act, or the Maine Oil Discharge Prevention Law; it was not preempted by federal powers over foreign affairs or maritime commerce; it did not violate Portland Pipe Line’s due process or equal protection rights; and it was not inconsistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan – but found that a trial was needed on the Commerce Clause claim.  After five days of testimony, the Court has now ruled in the City’s favor on the final claim, finding that that the ordinance “does not discriminate against interstate or foreign commerce on its face, in effect, or in purpose.”

“Faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil being loaded onto marine vessels in the City and threatening the health of the residents and preventing redevelopment of the waterfront, the City Council prohibited this new activity. We are pleased that the Court upheld the ordinance,” said Linda Cohen, Mayor of South Portland. 

“The District Court conducted a painstakingly thorough review of the evidence, including hearing live testimony over five days, and concluded that the Clear Skies Ordinance was constitutional and not preempted by either federal or state law,” said Jonathan Ettinger, a partner at Foley Hoag. “The Court appropriately recognized that this case was about protecting the health, safety and welfare of the residents of South Portland under its broad zoning powers and not about whether the oil came from Alberta or Augusta.”

Foley Hoag is a Boston-based law firm with a leading environmental law practice. The team representing the City of South Portland was led by Ettinger and comprised of partner Euripides Dalmanieras and associate Jesse Alderman. Sally Daggett and Mark Bower of Jensen, Baird, Gardner & Henry in Portland served as co-counsel.

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