Downtown Portland by Adam Herstein via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Portland’s Oil-By-Rail Resolution Passed 4-0

By Roy L Hales


Two and a half hours were allotted for this meeting, but there was not enough time for everyone to testify. More than a hundred signed up to speak. The crowd spilled into two overflow rooms. Only one of the two proposed fossil fuel resolutions was voted on. Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed adopting policy opposing any increase in the amount of crude oil being transported by rail through the city of Portland and the city of Vancouver, Washington. Portland’s Oil-by-rail Resolution Passed 4-0 .

Oil-By-Rail Resolution Passed 4-0

The resolution states: “City of Portland opposes oil-by-rail transportation through and within the City of Portland and the City of Vancouver, WA….the City of Portland supports the preparation of a programmatic, comprehensive, and area-wide Environmental Impact Statement to identify the cumulative effects that would result from existing and proposed oil-by-rail terminals.”

This is a statement of intent, rather than legally binding legislation.

Prior to announcing his vote, Commissioner Nick Fish said, “This is largely symbolic, because Federal law pre-empts us from interfering with railroads and so much of the Constitutional law goes against this. Part of our job as city council is to be explicit about our values, even if our authority is limited. Safety is a core value. Clean Energy is a core value.”

City staff said they need to carefully examine the legal implications and possible applications before council passes substantial legislation.

A law meant to prevent the adoption of projects bringing mile-long-trains through Portland must be framed so that it cannot be used against trucks delivering fuel to gasoline stations.

Similarly, the as yet to be passed resolution against new fossil fuel infrastructure is meant to protect Portland from the negative impacts of massive oil-by-rail, or propane, terminals. It should not apply to parking lots (which hold gas cars) or a recycled diesel oil company.

A Sense of Urgency

There was a sense of urgency behind the decision to vote on the oil-by-rail resolution.

The largest oil-by-rail terminal in North America may soon be built across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.

The proposed Tesoro Savage facility boasts of the the “potential to displace 30 percent of the crude oil currently imported from foreign countries for use on the West Coast and to further our efforts toward energy security and independence.” If this project goes forward, it could provide 176 living-wage jobs and more than $7.8 million annually in state and local tax revenues.

It is one of seven proposed projects that threaten to transform the Columbia River into a fossil fuel superhighway.

Most of the people who spoke against these projects said the benefits were little when weighed against the risks.

They were  grandparents, businessmen, Native Americans, doctors, nurses, educators, students, blue collar workers, scientists, and environmentalists.

Increased oil-by-Rail Through Portland

Amanda Fritz at a meeting of the City Commission by Joe Frazer via Wikipedia (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Commissioner Fritz expressed concerns about the increase of oil traffic that would pass through  Portland, if Tesoro Savage is passed.

“The City of Portland’s North East Coalition of Neighbors has spoken out in opposition to oil trains in the City of Portland due to their dangerous and interruptive nature,” she said.

Mayor Charles Hales described a problem he observed last summer. After the-hundred year-old bridge opened, to let a sail boat through:

“They couldn’t get the bridge to close. So they sent a worker out with a big sledge hammer. He whacked on the rails until they were aligned enough so that they could bring a train across.

“Now we are often assured by corporations that there is nothing to worry about, everything is safe but, as an Amtrak passenger, that scared the hell out of me. And that is the same bridge that would have to carry more oil trains if we facilitate that movement.”

“Communities along the Columbia River are faced with an unprecedented, and new, threat: the idea of moving vast quantities of fossil fuels, particularly oil trains …. The oil train resolution you are considering is both timely and appropriate because there are more than 100 trains a week that could be headed down the Columbia River. Each train carries three million gallons of oil in railcars known to spill and ignite. A spill in the Columbia River would decimate salmon habitat, disrupt river traffic and threaten drinking supplies downstream,” said Dan Sears, Conservation Director for  Columbia Riverkeeper.

“These trains can also carry very heavy tar sands crude which, when it spills, may sink into the Columbia River and be very difficult to clean up. This happened in Kalamazoo Michigan.”

He said the Columbia River’s proposed fossil fuel projects (oil, LNG, coal and propane), have a greater capacity than the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Negative impacts include exploding trains, degraded air quality, delays in emergency response time, and worsening of lung and cardiac conditions,” testified Dr. Patrick O’Herron, president of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“I have in my office, in my tribal council, a bottle of coal dust that I collected by the river. When the coal companies met with our tribe and they told us there will be no coal dust entering the Columbia River at any level,  at any time. … They told us they spray the train with a chemical so it does not fly off the cars. I asked them what that chemical was, and they have never released (that information) to our tribe,” said Carlos Smith, with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Javier Hurtado, of the Cha Cha Cha Taqueria, said he needs to know that locally grown meat and produce is safe for his customers to eat.

“This (oil-by-rail) matter was brought to my attention over the summer, when Physicians For Social Responsibility and others came to my office and told me about the proposed terminal. I was most persuaded by the Longshoreman’s union opposing that terminal that even if there were jobs, those jobs would be so dangerous they couldn’t put their members in harms way,” said Commissioner Fritz.

They talk about Safety, Safety Safety …

“We know that the industry touts safety. The shipping industries, the rail industries, that’s all they talk about – safety, safety safety. I’m here to tell you, as a longshoreman who has worked in the industry for +20 years, safety always takes a back seat to production,” said Cager Clabaugh, representing the Vancouver Longshore Union.

Clabaugh said a week before the explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that killed 47 people, industry representatives told him oil trains do not explode.

A member of the city of Portland’s staff said the clean-up costs of that Quebec explosion were $2 billion.

She showed the assembly slides of other oil-by-rail explosions, including one that set the James River on fire.

The city of Vancouver, WA, passed a resolution opposing the proposed Tesoro-Savage  project last year.

The Vancouver Firefighter’s union is against oil-by-rail projects  because they do not have adequate manpower, equipment or training to deal with a major fire.

Port of Vancouver Commissioner elect Eric LaBrant‘s  election is widely perceived as a referendum on this oil-by-rail terminal. He received more than 56% of the votes cast.

“Stakeholders desperately want to move oil and coal along the river upon which our economy relies heavily, in order to chase large but declining markets in Asia. Expect dire warnings if they do not get their way, ” he told the assembly in Portland.

Opposition to the Resolution

There was some opposition to the resolution.

Marion Haynes, of the Portland Business Alliance, urged council to not make a decision yet,  “There has been little analysis of (possible impacts upon) the supply chain or market realities…. little understanding of the state wide implications … It is an extremely complex issue  … there are many examples of people doing innovative things this could interfere with.”

“We do not see the need to act today. What we should do is take a little more time to explore what all those different types of situations are, so that any policy doesn’t result in unintended consequences,” she said.

Willy Myers, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, also urged deferral.

“The negative impacts on the middle class from these resolutions by opposing infrastructure will be devastating and will add to the wage inequality in our state by the city taking a stand against the working class,” he said.

Myers pointed out that the people of Oregon rely upon fossil fuels to heat their homes and raise their crops.

Rob Mathers, the Marketing contact for Kinder Morgan’s North West Terminals, said his company “owns and operates a significant amount of critical energy infrastructure in Portland and in Oregon.” He called the export resolution, “a pretext for declaring war on the working harbour and the use of all fossil fuels.”

A Rough 24 Hours For Tesoro-Savage

“You will be urged to keep up business as usual, but these days business as usual means falling behind. In 19 countries solar power has reached price parity with coal. That means it is cheaper to make power with sunshine than coal. The U.S. will reach that tipping point next year, changing the way we think about energy, and its role in business, the way the internet changed the way we think about information, ” said LaBrant.

“It’s been a rough 24 hours for Tesoro-Savage. Portland made an unequivocal statement of opposition to the Tesoro project, and Vancouver residents elected Eric LaBrant for Port Commissioner in a clear referendum on oil trains. From both sides of the River, voters and elected officials are sending a clear message of opposition to the nation’s largest proposed oil-by-rail terminal,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.

The Second Resolution

Portland Mayor Charles Hales

A second resolution, opposing further the expansion or modification of infrastructure to transport or store fossil fuels, will come before Portland’s council  on November 12.

Mayor Hales said the resolution, “will help Portland protect the health and safety of local residents and businesses from the dangers and pollution associated with the transport and storage of fossil fuels throughout our community.”

Portland is going ahead of Oregon

There were several references to Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program, which accepts both propane and LNG, during the meeting.

Mayor Hales responded that Oregon intends to reduce its’ emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2020, but Portland is aiming for 80% (in 2050).

This is not possible, if the city allows the current expansion of fossil fuel transport and infrastructure to continue.

“Cities are where innovation happens. City by city, we can have a global impact in climate action, and I am proud to keep Portland in the vanguard of that action,” said Hales.