Science & Environment

Portland approves Zenith Energy’s renewable fuels plan

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Oct. 3, 2022 11:37 p.m.

Oil-by-rail terminal gets the land-use compatibility statement it needs to expand after promising to eliminate crude oil

Portland city officials have approved Zenith Energy’s plan to phase out crude oil at its controversial terminal and transition to renewable fuels over the next five years.

On Monday, the Portland Bureau of Development Services signed off on the company’s land use compatibility statement, an essential development certification, and said Zenith’s plans for its terminal in the northwest industrial area are now compatible with the city’s climate action goals.

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

Tank cars on the train tracks outside of the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland also contain a placard warning of toxic inhalation.

Tony Schick / OPB

The announcement comes more than a year after the city denied the company’s certification because it didn’t meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals from Portland’s Climate Emergency Workplan and 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

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 been planning to expand its operations since 2020 but needed a land-use certification from the city to move forward.

The Texas-based fuel distributor says it will stop transporting crude oil over the next five years, disable eight railcar spots from unloading crude oil and remove 30 storage tanks from alongside the Willamette River. In addition to these commitments, Zenith has agreed to allow city inspectors access to the terminal immediately upon request.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the development services bureau, said the terms of the land-use approval are a step in the right direction and he expects the company to comply.

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“This decision is a strong signal to industry that Portland will work with partners toward cleaner air and less dependence on fossil fuels,” he said.

Zenith Energy Vice President of U.S. Operations West Grady Reamer said the company is committed to leading Portland’s renewable fuel transition and will reduce its emissions by nearly 80%.

“We can help the city achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals and address climate change by transitioning 100% of our crude oil storage to renewable fuels in just five years,” Reamer said. “The renewable fuel we supply to the Portland market emits up to 80% less carbon dioxide than traditional fuel, and it can be used without replacing vehicles or infrastructure.”

This is the third time the company has applied for a land-use certification to expand its Portland terminal. The city’s approval is needed before the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to consider an air pollution permit the company needs to continue and expand its operations.

Last year, Zenith appealed Portland’s denial of the company’s application for land-use certification. The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled the city has the power to deny Zenith approval but also said the city needed more evidence to support its denial. Zenith took the LUBA decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which has not issued a ruling.

Environmentalists say the city rushed the decision to grant the certification and neglected public input. Nick Caleb, an attorney with the climate justice advocacy group Breach Collective, said the decision was “wildly irresponsible,” and it’s not clear how the city plans to enforce this new plan.

“The ‘deal’ does nothing to protect Portland’s residents from dangerous trains or fuel storage facilities,” Caleb said. “The city fast-tracked this decision without any community involvement and with full knowledge of how many residents and elected officials spoke out against Zenith’s operations last fall.”

Dan Serres, conservation director for the environmental group the Columbia Riverkeeper, said the city could begin to see the end of crude oil trains, but there’s still a short-term risk of an oil train derailment like the 2016 Mosier incident.

“Zenith is still gambling with the health and safety of everyone who lives along the train route for another five years,” he said.

The city’s land-use certification does not require public input and doesn’t guarantee the company’s air pollution permit will be approved. DEQ will now consider Zenith’s air quality permit application as well as the city’s land-use approval. If the state agency concludes the facility meets the requirements to obtain a permit, it will draft that permit and go through the public review process before making a decision.

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