RIGHT NOW, a growing number of cities across the US are either strictly limiting or expressly prohibiting fossil fuel trafficking over their borders. Don't look for "America's Greenest City" on that list just yet.
As climate change concerns come to a head in the Rose City, Portland currently has no fossil fuel export policy—a formal city standard dictating Portland's relationship with some of the world's most controversial substances. That could change by the end of the year.
In June, Portland City Council approved the 2015 Climate Action Plan, which directs the city to establish such an export policy. Now, officials are looking at several possibilities, while local environmental activists are pushing for rules to keep all carbon-spewing fuels from Portland's roads, rails, and waterways.
And in an election year where Mayor Charlie Hales is feeling mounting pressure to take a strong stand on climate action, the environmentalists might be making demands the city can't ignore.
Hales has directed the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to develop options to guide city council toward a tenable fossil fuel policy. He's also tasked the bureau with convening an advisory council of local stakeholders to help. The advisory commission includes representatives from environmental groups, government bureaus, tribes, unions, and business alliances.
The group met twice—on October 1 and 15—to discuss possible policy recommendations. It's looking at two options: (1) opposing coal, oil, and petroleum infrastructure expansion, with limited support of "cleaner" fuels, such as natural gas, that meet certain criteria, or (2) a stronger policy that opposes expanding infrastructure and transport of all types of fossil fuels.
The choices are full of jargon, but have wide-ranging implications. Depending on the city's decision, the export policy could prohibit oil trains—mile-plus-long "bomb trains" carrying crude oil that can derail and catch fire—from rolling into Portland. It could strengthen environmental zoning rules like the ones that kept Pembina Pipeline Corporation from setting up shop at the Port of Portland's Terminal 6 earlier this year, and block new developments that would transport fossil fuels through the city and surrounding waterways. New rules could also require seismic retrofitting, health impact assessments, and new financial assurances for any fossil fuel infrastructure-related project in the city.
In other words, the options BPS is discussing are a very big deal.
The purpose of the two advisory committee meetings wasn't to get a consensus, BPS Senior Sustainability Manager Michael Armstrong said at the October 15 meeting, and there wasn't one. Many want total opposition to fossil fuels, while others think each proposed project should be judged independently based on its projected emissions, safety, and economic advantages.
At the same time, BPS is also looking at other cities' fossil fuel policies as a guide.
"Oakland, for example, adopted a resolution opposing transport of fossil fuels," Armstrong wrote in an email to the Mercury. "South Portland, Maine, adopted an ordinance banning the loading of bulk oil [at] its port."
David Van't Hof, an energy consultant working with BPS on the export policy, pointed out in a September 30 email to Armstrong that 27 Oregon and Washington communities, including Eugene, have passed non-binding resolutions against coal transport, citing concerns such as potential health problems, declining property values along rail routes, and questions of whether "exporting coal to Asia is inconsistent with Eugene's own city goals of carbon neutrality."
One group of activists—including Mia Reback, who's also a member of BPS' advisory committee—sees Portland's current situation as a prime opportunity to get the city to adopt the most stringent policies it can.
"We are in an incredible position right now as a city," she says. "The timing of this policy presents us with a very special opportunity to do the right thing at home to protect the health and safety of Portlanders."
Reback says that while she's pleased BPS is "listening to all parties and taking our input seriously," she worries about the ambiguous wording in the options the advisory group explored.
"With climate policy, it is especially important to use precise language and to define all terms," Reback says. "This is especially true because fossil fuel companies have a history of 'playing dirty' and trying to circumvent policies designed to protect the health and well-being of all people, especially those who live closest to fossil fuel infrastructure, like rail lines and port terminals."
Reback and others representing organizations like the Center for Sustainable Economy and 350PDX last week submitted a memo to Armstrong and mayoral Policy Director Jackie Dingfelder. The memo called for the city to enact land use and zoning requirements to ban, or at least strictly limit, the storage and transport of fossil fuels, expand the city's environmental protections, and require fossil fuel companies to take financial responsibility in case of a catastrophe like an earthquake.
The Audubon Society of Portland's Bob Sallinger, who's also on the advisory committee, says that building pipelines and giant fossil fuel storage tanks here, along the Cascadia subduction zone, is foolish. He says that it doesn't matter whether it's crude oil or natural gas, the outcome will be the same.
"The reality is that even as we're doing all this work to recover our rivers, we have this incredible risk with these tank farms sitting in these liquefaction zones," Sallinger says. "It's finally becoming very real on people's radar screens that we need to focus on reducing the hazards already on hand and not create new ones."
Representatives of the Umatilla, Grand Ronde, and Warm Springs tribes, as well as a member of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, oppose the transport of all fossil fuels into and through the Columbia River Gorge, but others take a more nuanced stance, saying that limited transport of natural gas and propane could reduce other countries' reliance on dirtier fuels like coal.
"If it's going somewhere else in the world where it's going to help them do better, then that's one thing," says Katherine Schultz from the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission. "On the other hand, do I want a bunch of propane going through our state that could have a negative effect on our state?"
Some representatives say "yes." Joe Esmonde with IBEW Local 48, a union representing electrical workers, said this month that the union signed on early to the state's low-carbon standards with the understanding that propane was considered a clean fuel, and says the union is "very involved" in proposed liquid natural gas projects out of Coos Bay and Astoria.
Phil Ralston, environmental operations and policy director at the Port of Portland, echoed Esmonde's statements, saying at the October 1 advisory group meeting that the port has taken a "not now" stance on oil export because safety issues haven't been addressed satisfactorily, but is still open to considering propane.
In an October 16 email to Armstrong, Ralston outlined the port's official stance on the issue.
"The port does not think the city has yet made a case for a fossil fuel export policy or offered policy options that would allow a clear pathway for allowing cleaner, safer fossil fuel exports or imports through Portland," Ralston wrote. "More importantly, the city has not demonstrated how such a policy would provide meaningful climate and safety benefits, and therefore a benefit to Portland citizens."
The debate comes as the climate's playing a huge role in Portland politics.
Hales has spent the last several months grandstanding about his commitment to stemming climate change. Over the summer he traveled to the Vatican to discuss solutions. He was also invited to the White House for the celebration of President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan announcement.
It wasn't so long ago, though, that "Fossil Fuel Charlie" signs started popping up around Portland, as activists called out Hales for endorsing Pembina's plans to build a $500 million facility on the Columbia River.
He's trying to fight that image. After loud protests, the mayor reversed his position and shut the doors on Pembina's plans, much to the dismay of port officials.
Following the gigantic protest at the St. Johns Bridge where 13 Greenpeace activists and dozens of kayaktivists tried to block one of Shell Oil's exploratory drilling fleet ships from leaving town, Hales officially announced in July that he doesn't support drilling for oil in the Arctic. And in September, city council approved a "do-not-buy" policy for 200 fossil fuel companies the city vows to divest from by 2018.
The proposed export policies are another step in the discussion.
Sallinger, Reback, and many other stakeholders concerned with the environmental impacts of any further investments in fossil fuels say Portland should invest in truly clean energy sources—wind, water, solar—if it wants to keep its reputation as the greenest city in America.
"The statement that we need to wait, to get more information—that's always a ploy of industries when they want to stall things that aren't going their way," Sallinger says. "There's a heck of a lot of data to support creating a fossil fuel export policy."
Now that BPS has the advisory group's input, bureau staff will develop a proposed policy for public comment. The final draft will be presented to city council.