Zenith Energy says it wants to add renewable fuels and what it calls “a liquid intermediate” to the list of products it handles at its crude oil terminal in Portland.

The Houston-based energy company moves crude oil from rail cars to storage tanks and outgoing ships at its Portland terminal, but the company has been talking to city officials about adding new pipes to its facility in the Northwest Industrial Area.

But neighbors and environmental groups have been distrustful of the company’s motives, suspecting that what it characterizes as efforts to diversity operations are actually a veiled attempt to expand fossil fuel handling at the site. Portland city leaders have looked for ways to tighten oversight of  Zenith, and project opponents are hoping the city can use its authority to stop Zenith’s crude oil operations.

Construction continues at the Zenith Terminals site in Northwest Portland in early February, 2019.

Construction continues at the Zenith Terminals site in Northwest Portland in early February, 2019.

Tony Schick/OPB

According to Zenith, the pipes would be used to handle renewable fuels like biodiesel and ethanol, as well as “a liquid intermediate that will be used to make adhesive for the manufacture of plywood and particle board.”

“This project is not related to crude oil in any way,” the company’s project manager wrote twice in one letter to city officials.

The pipes would have to cross NW Front Avenue to reach the McCall dock on the Willamette River, and that requires city approval.

E-mails between the company and city officials suggest the liquid the company plans to pipe is methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI. That class of chemical can pose an inhalation hazard and has been documented to cause asthma and lung damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Alex Cousins with the Portland Bureau of Development Services said the company has had conversations with city officials about its plans but hasn’t submitted a permit application.

“Zenith is currently exploring whether they are going to be allowed to install some additional piping at the facility to transport other liquids,” Cousins said. “They will have to go through a land-use review process first, and they haven’t requested that review.”

Notes from a meeting between city officials and the company earlier this year suggest Zenith gave the city false information about whether its Portland terminal was handling crude oil from tar sands in Canada.

Cousins said in reviewing any new permit applications, “the city can only use judgment in our actions based on good faith from the applicant.”

Nick Caleb, a staff attorney with the environmental group Center for Sustainable Economy, says Zenith’s renewable fuel proposal may be an attempt to “greenwash” the crude oil terminal as he says other fossil fuel terminals across the country have done.

“One tactic they’ll often use is they’ll have a small piece of their operation that looks like it’s in the green category so then they can say: ‘Don’t you like this green energy project?’” he said. “Maybe it’s a legitimate operation, but we’re comfortable saying this is primarily a tar sands export terminal.”

He and others are urging the city to be careful in reviewing any company proposals and to look for opportunities to use their permitting authority to “rein in” the company’s crude oil operations.