Portland City Council voted to re-adopt a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure on Wednesday.
The vote will ensure that no new large fossil fuel terminals can be built and no existing terminals can be expanded anywhere in Portland—including at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub (CEI Hub), a six-mile stretch along the Willamette River in Northwest Portland that houses most of the state’s fuel supply, and is vulnerable to a major spill or explosion in the event of an earthquake.
“Continuing to allow new fossil fuel terminals and additional storage tank capacity is a threat to our community from a public safety perspective, from a public health perspective, and from an environmental perspective,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “This is especially true in the event of a major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. The first step to reduce the risk is to ensure the situation doesn’t get any worse.”
Held at the end of a year which saw fierce community activism around fossil fuel trains and terminals, the vote effectively reinstates a city policy first adopted in 2016, and which prohibited the “expansion of infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting or storing fossil fuels in or through Portland or adjacent waterways." That policy was halted during a legal challenge by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). WSPA argued the ordinance violated the Interstate Commerce Clause, a part of the US Constitution that prohibits discrimination against interstate commerce.
While the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled in favor of WSPA in 2017, that decision was overturned the next year by the Oregon Court of Appeals. However, the appeals court did maintain the finding that language in the ordinance violated the state’s land use laws, so Portland City Council had to pass a new version with tweaks to the previously problematic language. Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeepers, said these changes of wording won’t lead to a “substantive” change in what the ordinance accomplishes: limiting the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure within Portland city limits.
The vote was applauded by many environmental organizations, including Columbia Riverkeeper, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and 350 PDX.
“Building new fossil fuel infrastructure should be seen as morally inconceivable now,” said Dineen O’Rourke, campaign director for 350PDX, in a press release sent after the vote. “Our city’s decision thankfully reflects this and sets a precedent for cities across the country.”
What the ordinance won’t accomplish, however, is halting the expansion of the Zenith Energy terminal along the Willamette River at the CEI Hub. Zenith, which began quietly increasing its terminal footprint and running oil trains through Portland in early 2019, obtained permits for that expansion in 2015, before the original ordinance passed, so its plans are already grandfathered in under Portland’s old regulations. But the city has found other ways to resist Zenith, including denying the company a new permit to build underground pipes.
All four council members present at Wednesday’s meeting voted in favor of re-adopting the ordinance. (Commissioner Nick Fish was absent for health reasons.) Before casting his vote, Wheeler acknowledged that prohibiting new fossil fuel infrastructure was “in and of itself is hardly sufficient” for reaching the city’s environmental goals.
“We intend to bring forward other ideas in 2020,” Wheeler added.