Say the word "biodiesel" to just about anyone at city hall this week, and the reaction you'll most likely get is a mixture of guarded enthusiasm and surprise. City Commissioner Randy Leonard's new plan to mandate the sale of renewable fuel has put city staffers in a difficult position—most support the basic idea, but many were caught off guard by Leonard's ordinance.
Leonard says his office has spent months collaborating with the Office of Sustainable Development and others on the plan, which would require that all diesel fuel sold in Portland contain at least five percent biodiesel—fuel made from vegetable matter like soybeans. (That minimum would increase to 10 percent by 2010.) But many city staffers say they didn't know about the ordinance until it was scheduled for a hearing.
"People say a lot of things for a range of motives," Leonard countered. "I have long since tried not to ascribe motives to why some say what they do. The truth is that most of city hall has been aware that I have been working on this initiative since last fall. During that entire time I worked on and coordinated with a number of individuals in the community in developing the biodiesel proposal that was heard at council last week."
Leonard's chief of staff, Ty Kovatch, said they kept the plan quiet in order to surprise the oil industry. "The speed with which the ordinance itself was brought is because, as we have already seen, the oil companies have been very active in trying to drive a wedge in it, and we didn't think it wise to give them the benefit of extra time to do so," he said. "They have unlimited resources to throw at something like this. Every minute they can delay is another minute that oil is without an energy adversary in the marketplace."
During last week's city council meeting, lobbyists for the oil industry joined service station owners to implore the council to push aside the plan. They claimed that the petroleum industry is already hard at work developing renewable energy sources, but that forcing them to buy or sell it would hurt their businesses.
It appears that the testimony of one service station owner—Jubitz Travel Center's Fred Jubitz—found some open ears on city council. Jubitz claimed that if he were required to sell any percentage of biodiesel, truckers—wary of putting something other than petroleum in their engines—would simply take their business out of town. During the council hearing, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who heads up the Office of Sustainable Development, said he wanted a compromise that would protect Jubitz's business.
By last Friday, Leonard's office had drafted a solution: Any service station in town will be able sell regular, all-fossil-fuel diesel, as long as they also carry fuel with a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel or higher. According to Leonard, that will create a network of biodiesel stations that doesn't currently exist—at the same time, it'll keep companies like Jubitz in business. Plus, the amendment allows the city to put the biodiesel requirement on hold if the economy tanks.
The change also has a side effect that will appease critics of Leonard's plan. Because he is changing the ordinance, the full council vote is being pushed back a week, to July 12. That means the oil industry will have an extra week to lobby against the ordinance—an exercise that, at this point, seems futile. A majority of the council is expected to vote for the ordinance.
"I have learned that when energy industries' profits are involved, they will say anything, do anything and spend any amount to kill the threat," Leonard said.