It was the classic David and Goliath battle: On one side, school children and “Raging Grannies.” On the other, the $6 billion Pembina Pipeline Corporation, the largest pipeline company in the Canadian tar sands, and a plan to build the largest private investment project in Portland, OR, history– a $500 million propane export terminal.
What started out as a battle heavily skewed in favor of “Goliath”—with Portland’s Mayor Charlie Hales welcoming Pembina with open arms—10 months later, turned into a complete about-face, with the mayor shunning the corporation, and with Pembina all but high-tailing it back to Alberta. (At the time of this writing, Pembina was still holding out hope of building its propane terminal in Portland, but few others, except some members of the Port Commission, were.)
There were a number of factors that played into the hand of this surprising reversal of fortune. For starters, the battle took place in Portland—a town that doesn’t take kindly to the fossil fuel industry, much less a corporation that made its billions on the tar sands. Cities don’t get much greener than Portland, and fossil fuels don’t get much dirtier than the tar sands.
Then there was the fact that, unbeknownst to most everyone—including, apparently, Mayor Hales and Pembina—there was the need to amend an obscure environmental overlay code in order to allow Pembina’s project to proceed. It was this amendment process, which required public participation in a discussion that otherwise might have taken place behind closed doors, that was the Achilles’ heel in Pembina’s plans. Loudly and clearly, overwhelmingly and repeatedly, late into the evening, and early in the morning, Portland residents showed up and made it clear they did not want any amendment that would allow Pembina to set up shop in Portland.
But the victory included far more important factors than these two. This was an amazing team effort. Together with more established groups like Columbia Riverkeeper and Audubon Society of Portland, the newly established Climate Action Coalition (CAC) was a major force in helping bring people out to these hearings. Coalition member, Nick Caleb with Our Children’s Trust ensured the riveting testimony of students at Sunnyside Environmental School was a part of the hearings. Another coalition member, Dr. Kelly O’Hanley, a retired physician who has taught medicine at Stanford and Harvard, and Greenpeace volunteer, provided expert testimony on the health effects of the rail transport. Rising Tide members reached out to ensure First Nations and Native American voices were heard at public hearings. 350PDX was instrumental in ensuring broad attendance at all of the rallies and hearings. The Portland Unitarian Universalists provided meeting space and critical support throughout. The Center for Sustainable Economy together with its project, the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, helped with media, press outreach, and testimony. Together, our participation in public hearings, our outreach and our actions were as varied as our city’s population.
Hearings included testimony from Longshoremen, people of faith, tropical disease specialists from Oregon Health and Sciences University, physicists and other scientists affiliated with the Northwest Citizen Science Initiative with expertise on thermal blasts and earthquake subduction zones—all opposed to the terminal.
Outreach included retirees working their political connections, artists who created amazing posters and likenesses of the mayor distributed around town chiding him for his support of the fossil fuel industry, or people who spent hours bicycling the “tank of doom” –a likeness of so-called “bomb trains”– to street fairs and rallies together with informational flyers.
Actions included civil disobedience at City Council meetings with CAC members momentarily taking the stage with larger than life-sized heads of City Commissioners, reminding them of their past statements on climate change, all staged respectfully and videotaped before a shocked audience for widespread distribution to the media.
We did it all with mostly volunteer labor, out of love for the city and the people we share it with, and out of love for the planet whose fever we want to cool. We did it and we won. But we have lots more work to do. Within the Portland area Climate Action Coalition, we have created a dynamic that is at least as precious as our David-like victory over Goliath-like Pembina. That dynamic includes a willingness to engage in non-violent civil disobedience, should the occasion call for it, and extends to empowering all who care about our planet and future generations to find a role within our coalition that can help us expand this movement further. As Naomi Klein writes regarding activism on climate change in her book, “This Changes Everything,” “To change everything, we need everyone.” With this kind of generosity of spirit, there’s no stopping us. Goliath or no, we will win. We must win.