An Unexpected Threat to Portland and Surrounding Region: Tar Sands by Rail

Athabascan tar sands in Canada. The industry hopes to excavate an area the size of Florida to access this highly polluting fossil fuel. Source: Creative Commons.

The successful grassroots resistance to tar sands pipeline proposals across North America is resulting in an increase in the far more dangerous transport of tar sands crude by rail, putting communities and the environment in the vicinity of this toxic cargo at risk of derailment, spills, and life-threatening explosions. In recent months, grassroots activists were surprised to learn that two Oregon ports, one in Portland, OR and the other in St. Helens, OR, have current proposals for expanded export of tar sands crude by rail.

Tar sands oil, much of it extracted from the soil of Alberta’s Fort McMurray region, is the dirtiest of all of the fossil fuels. Former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Dr. James Hansen, wrote in The New York Times: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate. Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.“

Tar sands aren’t just a grave threat to the climate: their extraction is harming First Nations, destroying wilderness and wildlife, and poisoning drinking water. Left unchecked, Canadian corporations hope to expand their tar sands mining to an area the size of Florida.

Portland Tar Sands Proposal: Zenith Energy Management

In December 2017, Zenith Energy Management purchased an existing asphalt and crude oil facility in northwest Portland. Within one month, unbeknownst to local officials, Zenith began importing tar sands crude oil on mile-long trains from Canada and selling it on the global market to places such as Rizhao, China; Yeosu, South Korea; and Martinez, California, according to The Oregonian.

In late 2018, Zenith Energy Management finalized its full acquisition of the facility and immediately began construction on an expansion project based on permits acquired in 2014 by the former terminal owner, Arc Logistics. Zenith receives shipments of oil by rail and then transfers them onto ships headed for Asian markets using a nearby dock owned by Chevron. If allowed to proceed, the expansion project would allow Zenith to pass through up to four times as much crude oil by rail as is currently possible at the site.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared on March 6, 2019, “We will continue to do everything we can to limit this [Zenith] expansion or get rid of it all together.” However, to date, construction continues on the Zenith tar sands by rail expansion project in Northwest Portland. CSE is working with partners to: 1) develop an accurate understanding of the regulatory context in which this expansion is taking place; 2) determine which government entities are responsible for oversight and regulation; 3) and stop the project.

On Earth Day, members of the Portland chapter of Extinction Rebellion blockaded the terminal with a “Victory Garden” and tiny house. Also on Earth Day, CSE joined 350PDX in sponsoring a rally and tour of the Zenith facility.

Aztec dancers join members of Portland Extinction Rebellion and others on the railroad tracks in Portland, OR on Earth Day in protest and prayer over the proposed expansion of the Zenith tar sands terminal.

In early May 2019, CSE helped organize 16 organizations to sign on in support of a letter to leaders at the City of Portland outlining a roadmap to stop the Zenith expansion project and phase-out all fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland and Multnomah County. Suggestions included:

(1)  Immediately Prohibit City Action That Promotes New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

The City of Portland should immediately halt all permitting of fossil fuel infrastructure, and explore more permanent code changes to ban fossil fuel infrastructure entirely.

(2)  Stop the Zenith Oil Terminal Expansion

The City of Portland should declare a city emergency and issue a stop work order on the Zenith project until a full health and environmental assessment has been made and an adequate first responders’ plan created. In line with Portland City Council’s resolution on oil trains (No. 37164), the City of Portland should call a public hearing and compel Zenith’s attendance bearing complete and accurate information on the project.

(3)  Reinstitute the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments (FFTZA)

The City of Portland has stated that it plans to reinstate its zoning amendments banning the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in Summer 2019. CSE was part of a coalition of groups that intervened to defend the ban from an attack by the fossil fuel industry. The City should ensure the amendments make no allowances for the expansion of existing projects.

(4)  Uphold Past Policy Commitments on Climate

Portland’s Resolution No. 37164 (oil train policy) and Resolution No. 37168 (fossil fuel infrastructure policy) compels the city to take affirmative action to investigate and address existing oil trains and fossil fuel infrastructure. The City of Portland can continue to implement these resolutions by addressing either smaller storage and transfer facilities, or pass-through projects for possible noncompliance. The City of Portland should commit to upholding these resolutions in their entirety in all of its bureaus.

(5) Develop Plans for a Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Phase-Out

Existing fossil fuel infrastructure poses an existential threat to Portlanders in two ways: 1) a continued reliance on fossil fuels threatens us all with possible runaway climate change, and 2)  existing fossil fuel infrastructure, built before the City understood the risks of a major earthquake, poses a serious health and safety risk to City and the environment. For both reasons, the City of Portland should engage community members in a plan for the managed decline of existing fossil fuel infrastructure, and do so in a way that forces the polluter, not the public to pay. (See, for example, CSE’s policy of Fossil Fuel Risk Bonds.)

If you support this five-point plan, please sign on to the roadmap—as an organization or as an individual—here.

Moving forward, CSE will continue to research and monitor fossil fuel infrastructure in our region, develop legal and policy options, and work with coalition partners to organize resistance to the Zenith tar sands oil expansion project. Join us!

Oil trains along the Snohomish River. Source: Creative Commons


Global Partners

Around the same time as news broke about Zenith, we learned that Global Partners, ranked 361 on the Fortune 500 list, had similar plans of their own. Global Partners owns Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery (CPBR) which operates an oil terminal 30 miles down the Columbia River from Portland, OR, at Port Westward in St. Helens, OR. The facility was originally built and permitted as an ethanol production plant but was sold and is now used as an oil and/or ethanol terminal. No ethanol is produced at the site. CPBR operates under an air contaminant discharge permit which expires on August 1, 2019. Plans for major modifications at the facility, including a switch to diluted tar sands oil warrants a new discharge permit and a public hearing, rather than a renewal of the current permit. CSE will join our partners and local community leaders in calling for a public hearing and help generate significant grassroots resistance to Global Partners’ plans to ship tar sands via CPBR.

Global Partners, headquartered in Massachusetts, had faced heavy resistance from groups working to protect the Hudson River Valley from their shipments to a proposed tar sands terminal in Albany, NY. Grassroots resistance worked and in late December 2018, Global Partners decided to switch their plans from shipping tar sands by rail from Albany, NY to Port Westward, OR instead.

Sign up for our newsletter for further updates on the Global Partners and Zenith terminals. With your support, we can fight to ensure neither of these dirty tar sands facilities are built.

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