Portland leaders are poised to limit the expansion of fossil fuel terminals after years of legal challenges from industry groups.

They’re considering a zoning code change that would prohibit the construction of new fossil fuel terminals in the city and prevent the 11 existing terminals that dot the Portland harbor from adding fossil fuel storage tank capacity. The city defines a fossil fuel terminal as any facility that transports and stores fossil fuels with “access to marine, railroad, or regional pipeline.”

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Supporters at a Thursday hearing on the zoning change said the move was a necessary step to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a disastrous oil spill into the Willamette River during the next major earthquake.

“As we work to make our community safer, the first step is to make sure the situation does not get worse,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which spearheaded the ordinance. “Continuing to allow new fossil fuel terminals and new fossil fuel storage tanks increases the risk to the surrounding district, the Willamette River and the entire city.”

Trucks, barges and tanker ships come to the harbor to pick up loads of gasoline and refined oil products.

Fuel storage tanks in Portland.

Bonnie Stewart / OPB

Ten of the city’s existing terminals handle petroleum products (such as fuel, lubricant, asphalt), and one handles liquid natural gas for heating in the winter, according to Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Supervising Planner Tom Armstrong. All pose a risk of a catastrophic spill or explosion in an earthquake.

“All of these terminals are located in an area that is at high portability and high risk of liquefaction in a major earthquake,” Armstrong told City Council members. “There’s no location that’s at lower risk … in Portland where these fossil fuels terminals could be sited.”

Armstrong said the terminals will still be able to add tank capacity for renewable fuels and jet fuel.

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This is the third time city leaders have tried to get these zoning changes codified. They first tried in 2016, but that ordinance was appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. The city tried again in 2019, but the region’s major industry groups — the Western States Petroleum Association, the Portland Business Alliance, Oregon Business and Industry, and Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council – again fought its passage. The Land Use Board of Appeal, a state agency with the final say on controversial local land use decisions, said the city had more work to do to prove the zoning code change was consistent with its land use policies.

Armstrong told council members that the city’s ongoing fight with the oil terminal operator Zenith Energy would not be impacted by the ordinance they’re considering. Last year, the city denied a land use compatibility statement to Zenith, which operates a controversial oil terminal in the industrial area of Northwest Portland, blocking the operation from expanding. The company has since appealed the decision.

Thursday’s public hearing on the proposed change came hours after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling severely limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, which experts say will make it impossible for the federal government to significantly reduce U.S. pollution by the end of the decade as President Joe Biden had pledged.

“Whether we like it or not, it does fall on local governments at this critical moment to regulate the fossil fuel industries in our own backyards,” testified Elijah Cetas, a law student and climate activist.

While the dozen or so people that showed up to testify Thursday was unanimous in urging the council to pass the ordinance, some accused the city of not going far enough. They argued the council had carved out too large an exemption for storage of renewable fuels and left the existing 11 terminals untouched, operating at their current capacity.

“I have to point out that just blocking expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure does nothing to prevent Portland or the region from oil train derailments and fires from dangerous oil trains,” said Janet Weil with environmental justice group Extinction Rebellion.

City leaders will discuss the zoning code changes again — and possibly take a final vote — on Thursday, July 21.

Asked after Thursday’s hearing if he expected yet another legal challenge should the ordinance pass, Armstrong said he was the wrong person to answer.

“We’ll see,” he said. “That’s a good question for the PBA, the Working Waterfront Coalition, and Western States Petroleum Association.”


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