Both city officials and environmental activists could vehemently agree on one thing at Monday night’s public forum on a North Portland oil train terminal: It isn't welcome in Portland.
In fact, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said she’d refused an invitation to tour the site, owned by Houston-based Zenith Energy, before the public forum. Zenith is using the site to load crude oil extracted from tar sands, an especially environmentally harmful method, onto ships.
“I did not tour the facility, because I didn’t need a tour to know that tar sand oil is dangerous,” she said.
Hundreds of Portlanders attended the public forum to signal their opposition to new development at the Zenith site, and urge the city to push back an expansion.
Zenith first filed a permit application to expand its oil terminal in Portland in 2014. (Technically, that permit application was filed by energy company Arc Logistics, but Zenith now owns Arc.) As OPB first reported in February, Zenith obtained the land to carry out those expansions in 2017, and now has plans to eventually double the number of oil trains that pass through Portland.
In 2016, Portland City Council passed an ordinance effectively banning new oil terminals and limiting expansion on existing ones. (Those changes to city code were appealed, but upheld in court.) But city officials say the new rules don’t apply to permits granted before 2016.
In other words: While Portland leaders stand philosophically opposed to Zenith's operations, they say they aren’t sure they can challenge it legally.
That point was driven home by an announcement from the Bureau of Development Services (BDS), sent out in a press release just minutes after the forum wrapped up. BDS said the city will grant Zenith a temporary permit, granting the company permission to begin using its new facilities while construction continues.
“Decisions on permit applications are made according to the regulations that are in effect when the application is submitted,” said BDS official Terry Whitehill, in the release. “The city cannot change the goalposts now and apply new, different requirements after the applicant has already submitted their permit application and been approved for construction.”
At Monday's forum, Eudaly identified three alternative ways Portland could resist Zenith and the fossil fuel industry as a whole: Revising and expanding current city code; making Zenith pay for full insurance so the city would be protected in the event of an oil spill; and expediting Portland’s transition to using 100 percent clean energy. The forum was framed as a brainstorming session, so concrete details on these plans weren’t given—but Eudaly, Wheeler, and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty all said they were open to new ideas. (Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish were not in attendance.)
After making opening remarks, the commissioners opened the floor to invited and public testimony. A few key themes arose from the comments: That Portland should forbid Zenith from further development or operation in town, and then be prepared to face a legal challenge in court; that the city should be proactive in challenging Zenith in court on the basis that its business contributes to climate change (similar to the Juliana v. United States lawsuit currently making its way through the court system); and that this issue is an urgent one that calls for bold action.
“What the industry wants you to do is look at piecemeal permits, instead of the whole picture,” one person said. “Treat all permits with the skepticism they have earned.”
“Air quality in Portland is already poor,” said another person, speaking on behalf of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. She added that the diesel fumes from “several more trains passing through the city each week” would significantly worsen the city's air quality.
One woman who was arrested for occupying Zenith’s train tracks in April also spoke at the forum.
“Was it out of my comfort zone? Hell yeah,” she said, before inviting Wheeler and the other city commissioners to “sit on the tracks with us.”
The Raging Grannies, a protest staple in Portland, chose to submit their testimony in song:
It’s not yet clear what action the city will take next in regard to Zenith. But Wheeler promised the crowd at Monday’s public forum that “this isn’t the last of” the city’s efforts to oppose the energy company.