State representatives and Multnomah County legislators are calling for the City of Portland to shut down Zenith Energy, an oil transport company seeking to expand its terminal along the Willamette River. Environmental advocates are grateful for the support, but are still anxiously awaiting the city’s decision.
Zenith Energy is seeking a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS) from the city for its oil transport facility in Portland’s Northwest industrial hub. Zenith needs to secure the LUCS before moving forward with plans to expand its terminal to process biofuels, in addition to the crude oil it already transports.
If the city approves the LUCS, Zenith can move forward with securing additional state permits it needs to expand its transport facility. If the city denies the LUCS, Zenith won’t be able to legally operate at all, and will be forced to shut down. The city’s decision on the LUCS is expected by the end of the month.
In deciding whether or not to approve the LUCS, the city is tasked with determining whether Zenith’s operations align with Portland’s land-use values.
While Portland banned the expansion of any fossil fuel infrastructure in 2016, Zenith applied for the expansion of its terminal prior to that decision, forcing the city to honor the less-restrictive rules that existed at the time of the company’s application. Portland’s city attorneys have maintained that the city is very limited in its ability to deny the LUCS, but environmental advocates argue the city has the freedom to evaluate the facility based on the city’s values rather than a rigid set of policies.
Multnomah County leaders and nearly two dozen state representatives are siding with environmental advocates.
Last week, 21 state representatives sent a letter to the Bureau of Development Services (BDS)—the bureau in charge of the LUCS decision—as well as Director Rebecca Esau and City Commissioner Dan Ryan (who oversee BDS), asking the city to deny the LUCS for the health and safety of their constituents.
“We are in a full out climate crisis,” the letter reads. "The catastrophic risks of approving this application cannot be overstated.”
The letter goes on to cite the risks of an oil spill at the industrial hub where Zenith’s facility is located and the state’s recent climate goal, set by House Bill 2021, of decarbonizing Oregon’s electrical grid by 2040 as reasons to deny the LUCS.
“The climate crisis is happening everywhere and it is happening now—the legislature took action in 2021 and we will need to take action every legislative session from here on out,” the letter states. “In the interim, it is now the City of Portland's turn: expanding tar sands and crude transloading operations is not consistent with Portland's land use goals and climate commitments.”
As of August 25, neither Ryan or Esau’s office responded to the letter. A spokesperson for Ryan confirmed the commissioner received the letter and noted that “City Council is currently exploring all legal avenues related to this issue.”
Multnomah County leaders joined in, urging the city to deny the permit in a statement Tuesday. All four county commissioners and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury signed onto the statement, which acknowledged that the city’s denial of the LUCS could trigger a lawsuit from Zenith.
“We understand that this may require legal proceedings and we believe this is a legal fight worth having,” the county statement reads.
For state representative Maxine Dexter, whose district includes the industrial hub where the Zenith facility is located, the risk of a lawsuit pales in comparison to the risks her constituents face living next to an oil facility.
“I understand the city of Portland's position and I certainly don't mean to assert that this is an easy place to be courageous,” Dexter said, “and yet, there is never an easy time to be courageous. That's exactly the point of being courageous.”
Of all of the difficult decisions facing leaders as Oregon strives to meet its climate goals like those set in HB 2021, Dexter sees the denial of the Zenith LUCS as a straightforward issue. Because Zenith is a transport facility, a vast majority of the more than 200 million gallons of crude oil moving through the facility every year is shipped out of the state, with Portland acting as a convenient transport hub. Portland residents—and the surrounding communities who would be impacted by spills and train derailments—face the risks of living next to fossil fuel infrastructure for a product they don’t even use.
Additionally, that risk falls disproportionately on low-income communities and people of color. A report from the county found that people of color are more likely to live within a half-mile of an oil train rail line in Multnomah County than white people.
“I feel very strongly that it is my obligation as a white professional to do what I can to elevate the voices of people who haven't been heard,” Dexter said. “We all need to take that responsibility very seriously if we are going to do more than just say we believe in equity.”
Oregon Representative Khanh Pham, who represents part of East Portland, also believes the city has the ability to take a stand against Zenith.
“The City of Portland has actually taken some really bold stances in the past that have potentially made them liable for lawsuits,” Pham said, referencing Portland leaders’ decision to ban fossil fuel infrastructure expansion just a few years ago. That ban was challenged in court by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), but the Oregon Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in the city’s favor.
“I feel like there is precedent for the city taking a pretty bold stance and being able to defend it, so I definitely think we can do the same thing here,” Pham said.
Pham, a freshman legislator with a background in community organizing, believes the city can expect communities to organize against them if they approve the LUCS.
“I cannot overstate the trauma that people are feeling after this disastrous year,” Pham said, citing the onslaught of heatwaves, fires, and ice storms. “We need to make sure that our city leaders are listening to what the community needs and wants, and not to what oil and fossil fuel companies need.”
While environmental organizers are embracing regional leaders’ support, the additional pressure doesn’t automatically mean the city will deny the LUCS.
"I applaud these elected officials who are standing up at the right time and pointing out the obvious: we will never meet our climate goals or protect this community unless we start saying no to the fossil fuel industry,” said Nick Caleb, a lawyer with environmental advocacy group Breach Collective, in a written statement to the Mercury. “Multnomah County and the Oregon Legislature will be major players in the future of the critical energy infrastructure hub, but the important decision on the future of the Zenith Energy oil terminal right now is solely the City of Portland's."
Erin Saylor of Columbia Riverkeeper has “fervent hope” the city will recognize the full scope of legislators, leaders, advocates, and communities opposing the LUCS and take it into consideration, but only time will tell. Mosquito Fleet organizer Anisa Pollard echoes Saylor’s feelings.
“When we see definitive action on the city’s side, and not just keeping us questioning as to what's going to be happening, then I think folks will be more positive about the situation,” said Pollard of Mosquito Fleet, an environmental advocacy group that regularly organizers kayakers to demonstrate on the Willamette River in front of the Zenith terminal. “But, right now I think we all feel very tentative as to what's going to happen.”