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South Portland, Maine Wins Critical Fight vs. Big Oil

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South Portland, Maine Wins Critical Fight vs. Big Oil
The Portland Head Lighthouse in South Portland, Maine. traveler1116 / Getty Images

The city of South Portland, Maine has won an important victory in a three-year legal battle to stop a pipeline company from offloading tar sands crude oil on its waterfront, after a judge ruled Friday that the city's ordinance against the activity was constitutional, The Portland Press Herald reported.

Portland Pipe Line Corp. had wanted to reverse the flow of its pipeline from South Portland to Montreal as demand for foreign crude fell and Canadian tar sands production took off, but the city council blocked that move with a "Clear Skies" ordinance in 2014.


"Faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil being loaded onto marine tank vessels in the city and threatening the health of the residents and preventing redevelopment of the waterfront, the City Council prohibited this new activity," South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen said in a statement reported by The Portland Press Herald. "We are pleased that the court upheld the ordinance."

Portland Pipe Line Corp. had argued the ordinance was unconstitutional, saying it violated the Dormant Commerce and Foreign Commerce clauses of the Constitution that give Congress the power to regulate international and interstate trade, but U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. ruled that was not the case.

The company could still decide to appeal the ruling, but environmental law experts think the case could serve as a model for other communities standing up to big oil.

"For other communities looking at opposing fossil fuel infrastructure, this case is a blueprint for how you should do it," Vermont Law School environmental law professor Patrick Parenteau told Inside Climate News. "It's a strong opinion, and it could result in a really significant precedent for local control on petroleum-based industries."

South Portland was in part able to pass the ordinance because Maine has a "home rule authority" that allows municipalities to go beyond state law to protect their communities' health and well-being.

Fellow Vermont Law School professor Ken Rumelt told Inside Climate News that the ruling was "a powerful tool" for other communities. "It says that a community, assuming there is no state law preempting what they're trying to do, can say no, we don't want to suffer these impacts," he said.

The pipeline company, a Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, Shell and Suncor Energy, first sued to stop the ordinance in 2015, according to The Portland Press Herald.

Friday's decision came after a four-day trial in June, in which the company argued that there were almost no new foreign deliveries to the port and that their survival as a business depended on reversing the pipeline.

The city council, meanwhile, partly passed the ordinance because the company's pipeline-reversal plan included two 70-foot-high smokestacks near a waterfront park that would have emitted pollutants while burning compounds off of the crude before loading it into tankers.

Supporters of the ordinance also said that tar sands oil was more dangerous to load onto tankers and move through pipelines, and more difficult to clean up in the case of an oil spill, The Portland Press Herald reported.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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