François Vigneault

ON WEDNESDAY, November 4, Portland City Council will consider a pair of resolutions that, if passed, will help the city make good on its green reputation. Portland appears on the verge of saying "no" to new fossil fuel activity.

The resolutions—introduced by Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Charlie Hales—do two things: put the city on record as opposing oil-by-rail transportation through Portland and Vancouver, and instruct the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to explore policy options that would block fossil fuel companies from setting up shop here.

With Hales and Fritz on board, the legislation needs just one more commission vote to pass.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, running for mayor, announced on Tuesday that he supports the resolutions.

"[They] state clearly that we must move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy," Wheeler said in an email.

Environmental activists like the Audubon Society of Portland's Bob Sallinger call the proposals "historic," and say we're on the brink of enacting some of the strongest such policies in the US. They've been celebrating since the resolutions' language was made public, while groups like the Portland Business Alliance and the Port of Portland are less than thrilled (though neither would comment for this story). On Monday, the Oregonian editorial board published a scathing critique, calling the resolutions "vapid," and accusing Hales and Fritz of "naiveté and hypocrisy."

So how would these resolutions actually work?

Essentially, they're a roundabout way for Portland to discourage fossil fuel transport through the area without actually running afoul of interstate commerce laws. Cities don't have the authority to say what can be shipped in and out by rail, road, and waterway—those systems are under federal jurisdiction. But Sallinger notes Portland is "absolutely within its purview to address the health and safety of its residents and set up environmental regulations around fossil fuels."

And that's how these resolutions could amount to a headache for fossil fuel companies: By supporting zoning restrictions that severely limit or ban what hazardous materials can be stored in the city, and setting up restrictive, expensive regulations that make it less economically inviting for fossil fuel outfits to make Portland their home.

You've likely heard about these kinds of regulations already. Similar zoning requirements are the reason that Canadian energy giant Pembina Pipeline Corporation's $500 million propane storage and export facility plans in North Portland wound up floundering. A few lines of zoning code banned piping hazardous materials over sensitive riverside ecosystems, and there was no desire from city council to override them.

If the proposed resolutions pass, BPS will be tasked with coming up with similar policies to strengthen Portland's anti-fossil fuel stance moving into the future.

As we've reported, Portland's not alone in considering these types of policies.

South Portland, Maine, used zoning regulations to block crude oil transport when the city changed its laws to ban the transfer of oil from a pipeline to tankers, making the city unpalatable to petroleum companies. The Maine-based Portland Pipe Line Corporation is challenging the ordinance on grounds that it violates the US Constitution. Local environmental activists are closely watching the outcome of this situation.

"The complaint is a good example of the type [of] arguments that the city could expect to be levied against a Portland fossil fuel policy that directly regulated export," Nick Caleb, a local activist and policy fellow with the Center for Sustainable Economy, wrote in a memorandum to Hales and BPS. But Caleb argues that the city is within its legal rights to protect residents from hazardous materials, even if it can't explicitly ban oil.

Rob Lothrop—a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which represents a collective of Columbia Gorge Native American tribes—participated in an advisory board that helped BPS craft the language of the fossil fuel resolutions. The tribes CRITFC represents have their aboriginal lands along the route oil trains travel to get to Portland, and Lothrop says having the city on record as opposing the trains is a good step in protecting the gorge and the smaller towns the trains pass through.

"The resolutions are very good," says Lothrop. "Other cities have similar resolutions about crude [oil] by rail, but the broader resolution here is different because it addresses infrastructure and sends a message to the federal railways."

Michael Lang, conservation director at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, says the gorge shouldn't be a "pipeline on wheels."

"These trains go through small towns along the gorge. They pass by schools, daycares, businesses, and bring no economic benefit to those communities at all while decreasing property values," Lang says. "These resolutions could catapult Portland forward as being a real national leader regarding fossil fuel policies."

Examples of other jurisdictions exploring similar strategies for keeping hazardous fossil fuels from going through their neighborhoods include Allamakee County, Iowa, where the board of supervisors passed regulations banning a host of fossil fuel extraction strategies. In Dryden, New York, the town board banned industrial gas uses on the grounds that they "would endanger the health, safety, and general welfare of the community through the deposit of toxins into the air, soil, water, environment, and in the bodies of residents."

And right now, our neighbors in Vancouver are grappling with some of the same issues. Two outfits, Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies, are trying to build a massive oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver. That project is currently being reviewed by the State of Washington, but Vancouver City Council has gone on record opposing the project and in March extended, for the second time, a moratorium on expanding or establishing crude oil-handling facilities.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt says he looked briefly at Portland's proposed resolutions and that his city council is open to working with state and federal leadership to improve safety measures instead of trying to block transport outright.

"That said, we are seriously concerned about an accident happening in the Columbia River Gorge," Leavitt says. "But we're a little more pragmatic in acknowledging that these commodities, and probably other more hazardous ones, are being transported by rail, and we're not even sure if we have the authority to ban them." Leavitt says he'll be watching what happens in Portland—both on Wednesday and in the coming weeks and months if the resolutions pass.

"The politics on this side of the river are a little different than in Portland, but we're interested in presenting a unified voice for the metro area," he says. "I encourage our leaders to investigate what's working in other areas and we'd be open to working together with Portland if our city attorneys say it's a viable option."