Portland planners have crafted an elegant-seeming solution to an environmental zoning puzzle that threatened to stall construction of a ballyhooed, $500 million propane-export terminal on the Columbia River—a hiccup first reported by the Mercury in October.

According to documents released last week, planners suggest narrowly amending the city's environmental rules to let Canadian firm Pembina move liquid propane through a narrow strip of protected riverfront, but without explicitly opening the door to other fossil fuels like liquefied natural gas or removing protections in other environmentally sensitive parts of the city.

But the solution to that relatively small headache—forcing public hearings next year in front of the city's Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) and Portland City Council—might wind up creating an even bigger problem for the projects backers in the Port of Portland and Portland City Hall.

Seizing on supporting documents produced ahead of a planned January 13 hearing in front of the PSC—which include for the first time statistics about the propane project's presumed carbon footprint—advocates plan to ask city hall to slow or stop a so-called "fast track" project until several lingering questions can be sufficiently addressed.

"It's obviously not intended as a full-fledged hearing," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. "But it's going to have to serve that purpose."

Sallinger was particularly exercised over projections that show the propane terminal accounting for nearly a full percentage point's worth of Portland's carbon-dioxide emissions— 0.7 percent. That's likely because the facility—to minimize risk of propane ignition and accidents—will have to expend power chilling the propane to -44 degrees Fahrenheit so it remains in its more inert liquid form.

News of an increase in potential carbon emissions comes in the midst of Portland's ongoing push to cut carbon dioxide as part of the city's climate action plan. But numbers provided by the city also show a larger impact: The propane exported through the terminal each month would amount to 0.01 percent of carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide.


"The city's trying to bring down emissions," Sallinger says. "We're talking about a major challenge here."

He's got several other questions—some of which he tried asking Pembina officials during a lengthy tour of the proposed site on Tuesday. Sallinger, among several concerns, wants details about potential blast radius around the terminal, information on the safety of rail shipments involving propane, and specifics on promised jobs.

Audubon's also watching the Port of Portland for hints it sees energy exports increasingly as a source of profits moving forward. Sallinger wrote the following in a draft essay on the project shared with the Mercury:

This facility may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Port’s ambitions as an energy exporter. Pembina has already made statements indicating that it has ambitions to expand this facility in the future. The Port recently told a blue ribbon commission that it convened to advise on the future priorities of its marine terminals, that energy exports were among the most likely scenarios for future Port expansion. Although the Port focused on grain and automobiles during its recent efforts to annex and rezone wildlife habitat on West Hayden Island, there is a strong and justified concern that in fact this land could in fact be used either as a giant tank farm or to relocated existing operations to make way for tank farms elsewhere on Port properties.

When I wrote about the environmental zoning hiccup in October, the Port strongly denied it was looking to add natural gas to Terminal 6. But officials made clear the Port has that right for its terminals on the Willamette, which is subject to more industry-friendly regulations.

Sallinger says gentle pressure on city hall has been paying off—suggesting city commissioners "are listening and interested in the concerns we're raising."

And yet?

"To me it feels like a done deal, and they're just going through the process of getting permits," he says.