Ever since the city of Portland granted a land use permit to oil transport company Zenith Energy last fall, backpedaling on its August 2021 decision to deny the permit on the grounds that Zenith's operations were in conflict with the city's climate goals, climate activists have called on the city to reverse course once again.
Activists failed to rouse Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan, who previously oversaw the Bureau of Development Services (BDS), which granted Zenith's Portland permit. They were again disappointed after failing to gain ground with current BDS Commissioner, Carmen Rubio. Rubio previously said climate issues top her political priorities list, but the commissioner didn't move to reverse the Zenith agreement.
Zenith opponents aren't backing down. This Sunday, June 11, a group of activists led by anti-oil and gas direct action group Mosquito Fleet will gather at Cathedral Park to call on Portland City Council to rescind the permit. Activists plan to form a fleet of kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, and motor boats on the Willamette River under the St. Johns Bridge—about two miles north across the river from the Zenith Energy Terminal on Northwest Front Street—to demonstrate against the crude oil transport company.
The company's operations have drawn heightened focus in the wake of several disastrous train derailments across the country.
"Zenith’s oil-by-rail poses a serious threat to the health and safety of Portland residents," Mosquito Fleet stated in an announcement of the planned demonstration. "Recent history teaches us that trains can derail and explode, and when those trains are carrying oil, they have particularly disastrous repercussions to community health and safety, and to the local environment."
The activist group organizes on-water protests across the Pacific Northwest. In May, they led a group of "kayaktivists" in a rally against Zenith on the Willamette River in south Portland. This time, the demonstration is part of a national week of action to "end the era of fossil fuels."
"Those we have called out in the past for their inaction are no longer sitting on their hands doing nothing, they are actively harming our community and climate by advancing the the fossil fuel industry’s power," Eloise Navarro, National Fossil Fuels Organizer with 350PDX and one of the event organizers, told the Mercury. "Each time our representatives give the fossil fuel industry more power, they deny the existence of the climate crisis. The Portland community knows that urgent climate action is needed, and we can no longer support politicians and representatives that turn their backs on the climate, our health, and our futures."
Since last October, local climate activists have held several community forums dubbed "Rumble on the River," in an effort to spread awareness of their cause. The events have featured attorneys, nonprofit leaders and other climate-focused speakers. speakers such as Portland Audubon Director Bob Sallinger, climate and energy attorney Nick Caleb, Columbia Riverkeeper Conservation Director Dan Serres, former Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission Chair Jay Wilson, and more.
One of the caveats to Zenith's new permit agreement requires the energy company to transition to renewable diesel within five years. Opponents say given the risks associated with oil-by-rail transport, that's not good enough.
Critics say the biggest risk is the threat of Zenith's operations causing a catastrophic oil spill during the overdue Cascadia earthquake.
"In an earthquake, what seems like solid ground will liquefy and tanks may rupture, releasing as many as 193 million gallons of fuel and toxic substances into the air, water, and soil, harming wildlife and polluting the environment for decades," Mosquito Fleet's press release states.
Rubio's office maintains City Council cannot "create a special procedure" when it comes to approving Zenith's land use permit. She directs people concerned about the company's operations to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which is in the process of reviewing Zenith's air quality permit renewal application.
Activists are now calling on the DEQ to use its resources to stop the company's operations, but they still think City Council has more power than they're willing to admit. They'll continue to push Rubio and other city officials to use it.
"Instead of protecting our collective public health, safety and local natural resources, our elected officials are answering to the fossil fuel industry," Kelsey Baker, Project Director at Mosquito Fleet, told the Mercury. "That is why we are all here calling on City Council to have the courage to [rescind the permit they granted Zenith] and join us in fighting for a safer Portland and a livable future."
Sunday's event will be from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. You can find more information and RSVP here.