Science & Environment

Zenith Energy to phase out crude oil at Portland terminal

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Sept. 17, 2022 12:13 a.m.

Texas-based company announces shift to renewables amid expansion controversy

The company that owns a controversial oil terminal in Northwest Portland’s industrial area is proposing to transition from crude oil to renewable fuels over the next five years. The move comes after the city of Portland and a state environmental agency denied key permits that would have allowed Zenith Energy to expand operations along the Willamette River.

The permits were rejected because they did not align with the city’s climate action goals.


On Thursday, the Texas-based company said it has filed for a new land use certification permit that Zenith says will help Portland reach goals from its Climate Emergency Workplan and 2035 Comprehensive Plan. This is the third time the company has filed for the permit, called a LUCS.

A long train with round oil cars can be seen on the far side of a cinderblock fence topped by barbed wire.

Oil cars line up for unloading at the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland's northwest industrial area. The Texas-based company says it's planning to phase-out crude oil use at the Portland facility over the next five years.

Cassandra Profita / OPB

In a statement, Zenith said it plans to “immediately reduce” its storage of crude oil and a full phase-out will happen over five years.

“The public should have confidence in our commitment, which is why our new application includes significant accountability measures,” said Grady Reamer, Zenith Energy vice president of U.S. Operations West. “We set out a clear timeline for our action, and both city regulators and third-party specialists will have access to our site for inspections.”

Zenith’s Portland terminal receives crude oil and renewable fuels from trains, stores the fuel in tanks, and sends it through pipes to outgoing ships. Zenith also distributes renewable fuels to public and private users in the local area. The company has said it plans to expand its transfer and shipping of renewable fuels.

Last year, Zenith looked to renew an air-quality permit with the state Department of Environmental Quality but Portland’s Bureau of Development Service denied the application. The city said Zenith’s expansion did not align with Portland’s plans to reduce the city’s dependency on fossil fuels. A day before the city denied the LUCS permit, Zenith announced it would increase the amount of low-carbon, renewable diesel at its Portland facility.

Trains containing petroleum crude oil on a rail line outside of Zenith Terminals, sandwiched between the Willamette River and Forest Park in Portland's northwest industrial district.

Trains containing petroleum crude oil on a rail line outside of Zenith Terminals, sandwiched between the Willamette River and Forest Park in Portland's northwest industrial district. This week Zenith pledged to stop shipping crude oil through the city within the next five years.

Tony Schick / OPB

Zenith appealed Portland’s LUCS permit denial to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. The board ruled the city has the power to deny Zenith approval, but also said the city needed more evidence to support its argument that the project conflicts with existing land-use goals.

Zenith then took the LUBA decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The company is still operating under its existing air quality permit while legal challenges are pending.

Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability said it wouldn’t comment to confirm if it has received a new LUCS application or on the next steps.

Environmental group vows continued scrutiny

Miles Johnson, senior attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said Zenith’s decision to phase out crude oil indicates that the company understands the fuel is a thing of the past. Johnson said his environmental organization will be taking a closer look at the company’s proposal.

“They’ve said, ‘Oh, we want to transform into a renewable fuels hub,’ he said. “Like, OK, renewable fuels are a really hot topic right now but there’s not always a lot of agreement about what we mean when we say ‘renewable.’”

Johnson said opposition from Portland’s environmental community influenced Portland’s permit denials. He said that, if Zenith does ultimately phase out crude oil, it would essentially mean no more crude oil going through Portland, its surrounding communities and waterways.

But Johnson cautions “this is not the end of Zenith” or the public’s concern for the site.

“It would be great to take crude oil out of the energy mix,” Johnson said. “But we’re also really interested in, is that promise enforceable.”


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Tank cars on train tracks. A placard warns about the risks of toxic inhalation.

Portland denies Zenith Energy’s essential certification

A city bureau has rejected a certificate that an oil-by-rail operation had been seeking. The bureau concluded that Zenith Energy's facility was not compatible with land-use designations for the Northwest Portland site.