Large industrial tanks along the Willamette River. The St. Johns bridge is visible in the distance.
A portion of the CEI Hub along the Willamette River. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

After six years of opposition from the fossil fuel industry and local business groups, Portland is introducing a third iteration of a policy to restrict the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the city. While environmental advocates praised city leaders for their tenacity developing the ordinance, they believe additional loopholes need to be closed.

“As we work to make our community safer, the first step is to make sure that the situation does not get worse,” said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio during a council meeting Thursday. “Continuing to allow new fossil fuel terminals and new fossil fuel storage tanks increases the risk of the surrounding industrial distract, the Willamette River, and the entire city.”

The ordinance, titled the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning, is an updated version of rules that city council introduced in 2016. At the time, the policy was the first local law in the nation to restrict fossil fuel expansion.

Portland is uniquely impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure. The city is home to a 6-mile stretch of industrial fossil fuel holding tanks, or terminals, in North Portland along the Willamette River, called the Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) Hub. The hub supplies liquid fuel to over 90 percent of the state, including all of the jet fuel for the Portland International Airport, and can store at least 350 million gallons of fuel, like gasoline, crude oil, and diesel, at any given moment. For years, the city has recognized that the CEI Hub is a disaster waiting to happen.

According to a joint study by the city of Portland and Multnomah County, in the event of a major earthquake—like the overdue 9.0 magnitude Cascadia Subduction Zone quake—the unstable soil underneath the CEI Hub tanks would liquify and spread. Over 90 percent of the industrial tanks were built before modern seismic technology existed and have no resilience to an earthquake, meaning nearly 200 million gallons of toxic fuels could spill into the Willamette River. The potential spill could be comparable to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is considered the most egregious environmental disaster on record—except, instead of happening in the middle of the ocean, it would happen in Portland’s urban core. The spill would be devastating to environmental and human health and cause an estimated $2.6 billion to clean up.

Given the risk of oil spills and the negative climate impacts from fossil fuels, the 2016 ordinance was lauded as a critical step towards a greener Portland.

Then, the Western States Petroleum Association—a lobby representing the majority of the businesses in the CEI Hub—challenged the policy in court. The Portland Business Alliance —a lobbying group representing over 100 businesses in the city—also opposed the policy, claiming that placing restrictions on fossil fuels expansion would limit local jobs and restrict fuel access for local businesses. The lawsuit, despite being appealed all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, was decided in the city’s favor, with the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) determining that, while the city had legal authority to enact the policy, it needed to supply additional evidence within the policy to support it.

Portland officials introduced a second version of the policy in 2019 with the goal of addressing LUBA’s concerns. Again, the Western States Petroleum Association challenged the policy, with LUBA again finding that the city was in the right, but needed to address some concerns within the policy.

During a city council meeting Thursday, the city introduced the third iteration of the policy to satisfy the 2019 LUBA decision.

The latest version of the policy includes an amendment that explicitly allows exceptions for the expansion of renewable fuels and jet fuel within the city. According to studies commissioned by the city, the demand for jet fuel is expected to increase in the future. Because the CEI Hub supplies all of the airport’s jet fuel, the policy will allow for the expansion of fossil fuel tanks that exclusively supply jet fuel.

According to federal data, demand for fuels carried at the CEI HUb aside from jet fuel will remain stagnant through 2050 as fuel efficiency improves and people switch to electric appliances and cars. Despite a lack of forecasted demand, the policy will allow for the expansion of infrastructure that is exclusively used for renewable fuels, like biodiesel.

Other amendments to the policy clarify wording, like defining the difference between fossil fuels and renewable fuels, and outlining the characteristics of bulk fossil fuels terminals.

Regional officials praised the city for moving forward with the policy, particularly as some federal climate policies have been weakened. The city meeting was held a few hours after the US Supreme Court determined that the federal government doesn’t have authority to limit the amount of emissions coming from power plants in the country—a huge blow to one of the nation’s primary tools to fight climate change.

“This decision makes crystal clear that federal regulatory authority is likely to continue to be curtailed, making local action on a host of environmental fronts ever more crucial,” Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said, offering comment during the city council meeting. “We have to use all of the tools at our disposal to act now to protect our shared future and to minimize the harms threatened by fossil fuels storage and transportation.”

Environmental activists from local organizations like Columbia Riverkeeper, Breach Collective, and Extinction Rebellion also celebrated the policy moving forward, but urged the city to reconsider the exception to allow for the expansion of renewable fuels.

“Biodiesel and renewable fuels go boom and spew flames and fumes when the quake hits just like fossil fuels,” said Lynn Handlin, a member of Extinction Rebellion. “Electrification, reducing use through better building codes, transforming our transportation system to expand public transit, not widen freeways, pedestrian, and bike options are the way to go. We cannot burn our way out of this problem.”

Several commenters urged the city to remove the amendment that allows for the expansion of renewable fuels, or only allow new renewable fuel infrastructure to replace existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

City council will continue the discussion of the ordinance on Thursday, July 21, during which they can add additional amendments. Written comment on the ordinance will be accepted until 5pm on July 7.