The resolution calls for using existing laws to address environmental impacts of oil trains, and to ask railroad companies to share their plans and address safety concerns. But it can’t stop oil trains from coming through town because the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over railways.
Nonetheless, Commissioner Nick Fish said the vote expressed the council’s support for safety and clean energy. “While this action is largely symbolic because federal law preempts us from interfering with railroads and so much of the constitutional law goes against us, part of our job as a City Council is to be explicit about our values, even if our authority is limited,” he said.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who proposed the resolution, said it’s “not just symbolic.”
“This is about the future, and we do need to start taking specific steps,” she said.
The council delayed action on a second resolution that opposes the expansion of infrastructure for transporting or storing fossil fuels in Portland and nearby waterways. That resolution also directs city staff to propose city code changes that would prevent new fossil fuel developments.
The vote followed hours of public testimony, most of which was in support of both resolutions. More than a hundred supporters gathered outside City Hall for a rally before the vote.
The resolutions are a response to the rapid expansion of fossil fuel development nationwide and numerous oil train accidents in recent years.
The Port of Vancouver is currently considering a proposal for an oil-by-rail terminal from the Vancouver Energy Project.
If completed, it would be the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal and could ship 360,000 barrels of oil daily from the Port of Vancouver to refineries along the West Coast.
Mayor Charlie Hales said the resolutions will help protect the health and safety of Portland residents from train accidents and pollution associated with the transportation and storage of fossil fuels. He also said they are a chance for Portland to affect climate policy.
“These two resolutions are a chance for Portland to start changing the national debate and the international debate,” he said. “It sounds egotistical for us to say that, but we’ve done it before. We’ve done it by adopting the first Climate Action Plan. We’ve done it by building light rail and the first modern street car in the United States. We’ve done it with green roofs and bioswales.”
Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Portland Audubon Society, called the resolutions “historic.”
Climate activist Bill McKibbin, founder of the environmental group 350.org, testified from the East Coast using what he called “low-carbon Skype.”
“Portland will go down as an absolute leader among all jurisdictions – cities, counties, states and nations – if it does this,” he said.
Not everyone supported the resolutions.
Joe Esmond of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 48 said he was disappointed that the city hadn’t brought low-income advocacy groups into the conversation to discuss the effect on jobs and wages.
“I wish the people in this room had the same passion for income inequality as they have for fossil fuels,” he said.
Rob Mathers of Kinder Morgan, which owns and operates fossil fuel infrastructure in the region, accused the city of “declaring war on the working harbor and the use of all fossil fuels.”
“These are polarizing policies that divide our community,” he said. “I urge the council to vote no but at least take some time before finalizing and signing the death warrants.”
The resolutions follow a controversial proposal to develop a propane export terminal at the Port of Portland.
Earlier this year, the City Council declined to consider a zoning change needed to build the Pembina project on the Columbia River – despite a recommendation from the city planning commission to approve it.
The City Council will take up the second resolution again at 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12. Commissioner Dan Saltzman was not in attendance for Wednesday’s vote, but commissioners indicated he plans to attend the next vote.