Oregon youth climate activists plan strike to demand governor declare a climate emergency

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Sept. 14, 2023 1 p.m. Updated: Sept. 15, 2023 4:48 p.m.

Youth climate activists will be walking out of school Friday to demand Oregon leaders act to protect the environment: They want Gov. Tina Kotek to declare a statewide climate emergency. And in Portland, they want state environmental officials to deny a key permit for a controversial fossil fuel company seeking expansion in the city.

Students from across the state — including Portland, Bend, Florence and Salem — will be protesting for meaningful climate action on Friday. Youth organizers in each city have set demands specific to their communities as well as general demands across the state.

Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization demanding city leaders take meaningful action on climate change.

Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization demanding city leaders take meaningful action on climate change.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

One of those is a call for Gov. Tina Kotek to declare a statewide climate emergency. That would give the governor authority over all state agencies to use all resources available to prevent or help alleviate the climate crisis within the state.

Chloe Gilmore, an organizer with the Portland Youth Climate Strike and Lincoln High School senior, said declaring a climate emergency would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide and find other ways to reduce those emissions quickly.

Gilmore, who is the policy lead for the PYCS and helped draft a letter to Kotek, said she is hopeful if Kotek issues a statewide climate emergency that other states will follow. Hawaii declared a climate emergency in 2021 and has been the only state to do so.

“Even though issuing a state of climate emergency isn’t a super specific policy goal, it’s both symbolic and will lead to more expedited action in the Legislature because it allows for the state government to prioritize the climate crisis in terms of funding,” she said.

Call for more meaningful action

The walkouts are part of a national climate protest this week in which activists are demanding meaningful action on the climate crisis. Studies have shown the effects of climate change or extreme weather events like wildfires, heat waves and droughts, have hurt the mental health of young Oregonians. A recent study says climate change is also impacting the physical and mental health of residents in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

The burning of fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas create greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane that are trapped in the atmosphere — in turn raising average temperatures. If these emissions are not drastically reduced, researchers from around the world warn the world could see catastrophic climate disruptions by 2100.

According to the latest Oregon Climate Assessment, a biennial assessment of the state of climate change, Oregon’s annual temperature is projected to increase by 5 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 30 years, and is expected to increase by 8.2 degrees Fahrenheit in 50 years. The state has also experienced an increase in days in which the temperature hits 90 degrees or higher, with night time daily averages reaching 65 degrees.

FILE: Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization.

FILE: Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Gilmore said she hopes the climate strike will inform more people about what is happening in Oregon as temperatures continue to rise, as well as the individual problems cities are facing. She said Kotek has not made combating climate change a priority, but she hopes that will change.

“We as youth and as Portland Youth Climate Strike, we are disappointed in our governor for the lack of action, but we’re hopeful she will listen to us,” Gilmore said.


Anca Matica, Kotek’s press secretary, said the governor has fought for bold climate policies, including the Oregon Climate Action Roadmap to 2030 and has supported the development of the state’s first environmental justice mapping tool by 2025. She said the governor’s staff also worked with lawmakers to build the Climate Resilience Package, more than a dozen bills with a focus on community resiliency, adaptation and reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector.

“Additionally, the Governor is committed to taking advantage of the opportunity to bring in federal dollars to reduce and mitigate the impacts of climate change through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Matica said in an emailed statement.

Matica said Kotek also joined Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden in opposing the proposed GTN XPress pipeline expansion and urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject the project unless it can meet Oregon’s clean energy goals.

Portland youth demand end to fossil fuel transport company

Along with statewide demand for a climate emergency declaration, youth activists in the Portland area are also calling on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to deny an air quality permit for Texas-based fuel distributor Zenith Energy.

Zenith leaders want to expand their operations in Portland.

Zenith’s Portland terminal receives crude oil and renewable fuels from trains coming from Canada and Montana. Oil is stored in tanks in Portland and sent via pipes to outgoing ships. Zenith also distributes renewable fuels to public and private users around Portland.

The demand comes as recent reporting from other news outlets revealed some Portland City Council members held private meetings with Zenith in 2022. In October, the Portland Bureau of Deveolpment Services approved a key certification, called a Land Use Compatibility Statement, the company needed to expand operations. The Bureau previously denied the certification for not meeting the city’s climate goals. It was needed so Zenith Energy could move forward with its expansion and apply for an air quality permit through the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Portland climate youth activists are calling on the state to deny Zenith’s air quality permit.

Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Harry Esteve said there will be a public process that includes a chance for public comment before state agency leaders make a final decision. He said there is no timeline as to when the draft permit will be ready or when DEQ will decide.

“We’ll respond once we’ve really analyzed the details,” he said. “But one thing to note is that the Land Use Compatibility Statement is a local decision for the city of Portland to make and DEQ does not have authority over that decision.”

Esteve said the agency has received a letter from organizations concerned about the city’s certification process.

“If during the public comment process, we learned something that we weren’t privy to before or weren’t aware of or something that makes us rethink whether this is actually a proper permit, then we’ll take that into consideration,” he said.

A Zenith Energy spokesperson said the company is focused on implementing the commitments it made to the city when it applied for the certification needed for expansion, which included phasing out crude oil and transition to renewable fuels over the next five years. Last month, the company said it was ahead of schedule and has begun receiving renewable fuels, sustainable aviation fuel, from a Montana renewable fuels company.

They did not respond to a request to talk about the youth climate demands or about recent reports suggesting the company held private meetings about their certification process.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the government body that denied the Land Use Compatibility Statement. Portland’s Bureau of Development Services approves or denies that certification.