Community Stands Against Zenith at Portland City Council Public Forum,  Risk Bonds Approach Endorsed by Mayor and Commissioners

On Monday, July 15, the City held a public forum on the Zenith tar sands oil terminal in response to months of sustained pressure from activists and community members. It was a watershed moment in Center for Sustainable Economy’s ongoing campaign against tar sands by rail and fossil fuel infrastructure. Though we were given just a week’s notice to organize, as many as 500 people came that night dressed in red, representing a diverse coalition of neighbors, community leaders, activists, health practitioners and young people. 

The extraction and production of tar sands oil make it one of the most destructive substance on the planet. Its export, along with crude oil from the Bakken, through Zenith’s terminal in northwest Portland represents an immediate and immense threat to the climate, and the health and wellbeing of our river and communities. 

“In 2016, [Portland City Council] formally declared opposition to the Tar Sands and in support of the Standing Rock Sioux to blockade the Keystone XL pipeline,” Nick Caleb, Staff Attorney at Center for Sustainable Economy, said during his testimony. “We must renew this commitment to all communities who are on the front lines of dangerous fossil fuel projects and climate change by stopping Zenith and any more projects like it.”

Twenty-four activists and community members gave testimonies that night with a set of shared demands for the City Council and its bureaus: Halt Zenith’s expansion by issuing a stop work order and denying all permits; and uphold the City’s past commitments on climate action by not only shutting down the facility, but going further to lead on building renewable energy and a community-led decline of fossil fuel infrastructure.

“We must be moving more boldly and more quickly if we are ever able to reach 100% renewable energy,” said Jessica Becket, Executive Director of 350PDX, “Not to mention redressing the harms done to frontline communities who must every day live and breathe this injustice.” 

LLuvia Merello, Energy Justice Organizer with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR), testified, “We have all come out here with little notice because our group of community, climate, and health experts recognize the immense and immediate danger that tar sands presents to our current and future communities.”

Dr. Patricia Kullburg, a health professional and member of OPSR, described the health impacts these oil trains bring to Portland—from immediate diesel particulate exposure, to risks from toxic diluents added to the tar sands, like hydrogen sulfide and benzene, which could release into the air during a spill or explosion.

Zenith sent a representative to attend meeting but they did not testify or speak publicly.

Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director at Portland Audubon, spoke directly to the company during his testimony: “You owe it to this community to stand up and face this community. You owe it to us to tell us how you are going to keep our community and our environment safe. I suspect you’re not willing to do this because you know that you can’t.”

From the City, the forum was attended by Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly; as well as representatives from relevant bureaus: Robert Taylor, Chief Deputy City Attorney; Nate Takara and Shon Christensen of Fire and Rescue; Tom Armstrong, Director of Planning and Sustainability; Mike Myers, Director of Emergency Management; and Terry Whitehill of Bureau of Development Services.

Fossil Fuel Insurance? 

Image result for hurricane oil refineries flooding
Debris from a hurricane at an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Image from FEMA Photo Library.

Notably, at different times during the meeting, City officials stated that one of their goals in the coming months will be to explore a kind of “insurance” policy, requiring Zenith and other fossil fuel companies to pay for the cost of risk they impose on the community.

The idea echoes a polluter-pays policy that Center for Sustainable Economy has developed since 2015, called Fossil Fuel Risk Bonds. The policy involves an assessment of risks from fossil fuel infrastructure in the region, and an estimate of the full financial costs of a disaster measured against existing insurance coverage. The policy then describes a way to collect money from polluters for that difference—essentially the amount a city or state would shoulder in the event of disaster—and creates a fund for emergency remediation, mitigation, and climate resilience. 

As we know from past examples, a full remediation of a tar sands oil disaster would cost billions—and current protections could cover only a fraction. 

In 2018, Daphne Wysham, CSE’s Climate Justice Program Director, and Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society’s published a letter in the Oregonian arguing that Fossil Fuel Risk Bonds should be the next step in Portland’s climate trajectory. 

Last month, Multnomah County took a powerful first step when Commissioners voted to fund a new Fossil Fuel Risk Assessment, a first step towards a Risk Bond approach. 

But as this idea gains momentum it will be important to maintain that “insurance” can never become a license to pollute, and money raised should not wait for disaster. CSE envisions, for example, Risk Bonds producing money in the short term to address immediate impacts on adjacent communities. We also imagine one day when that same fund would help pay for dismantling sites altogether. For Risk Bonds to be just and effective, the policy needs to build equity into its process and have as an eventual goal the phaseout of all of Portland’s fossil fuel infrastructure.

The City’s forum on Zenith last week was a powerful reminder that by coming together as a community of activists to fight fossil fuel projects, we also generate new conversations, and sometimes take unexpected steps towards a better future. 


In the weeks ahead,  read and share our new report on the corrupt investments behind the Zenith and Global Partners tar sands facilities.

Attend DEQ’s hearing on Global Partners’ air permit application this July 24, in Clatskanie, Oregon to voice your concerns about tar sands export and oil trains in our neighborhoods. 

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