The Portland Model for Climate and Energy Action

Any lingering doubt about whether Portlanders were ready to vote for strong climate and energy action was extinguished on election night when the Portland Clean Energy Initiative (PCEI) garnered a 63% ‘yes’ vote. This grassroots designed and driven measure taxes large retailers to fund clean energy initiatives, energy efficiency, workforce training, and other important just transition activities. The overwhelming margin of victory confirmed what advocates have known for years: Portland residents are ready to show up for aggressive climate and energy action. PCEI is the latest in a string of significant victories that have formed what we might call the Portland Model for Climate and Energy Action. 

The City of Portland was the first city in the United States to establish a Climate Action Plan in 1993. This long term vision saw zoning, development, design, resource, and waste priorities implemented over time and has worked to lower per capita emissions. However, shifting geopolitics and the enormous risks of climate change have caused Portland’s grassroots advocates to demand much bolder action from their local governments. 

In 2014, Sightline Institute published a report called Northwest Fossil Fuel Exports with a staggering conclusion: the carbon emissions from combusting the fuels from the proposed export facilities in the Northwest would exceed those of the Keystone XL Pipeline by at least five times. The Pacific Northwest is not historically a fossil fuel region and the new infrastructure proposals have led to broader reflection on the nature of the global fossil fuel economy and our collective role in doing what needs to be done to prevent climate catastrophe. Rather than submit to claims of inevitability, we seized the opportunity to take action to shape the future of the planet. Portland has been at the front lines of this struggle and is seeing important results. 

Direct action, strong grassroots organizing, coalition building, bold and well-vetted policy ideas, and a willingness to confidently assert these ideas in the public sphere has proven to be a winning combination in Portland, Oregon. In a four year period, Portlanders defeated a major fossil fuel export project, passed restrictions against oil trains and fossil fuel infrastructure, passed 100% renewable energy goals, and now have voted overwhelmingly to tax wealthy corporations to fund the clean energy transition. What follows is a short summary of climate and energy action from 2014 to present which has reshaped what is considered possible for local governments.

Defeating the Pembina Propane Export Terminal

In Fall 2014, the Port of Portland and Pembina Corporation announced plans for a propane export terminal that would receive shipments of 1.6 million gallons per day of propane that would be shipped overseas for use. No public process was offered before this decision — the Port simply entered into an agreement with Pembina and former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales warmly welcomed the project.

However, before the project could move forward, the City of Portland had to convene a process to amend an environmental regulation to allow the propane to be piped across a sensitive riparian area. Advocates utilized this opportunity to mobilize and oppose the project. After an extremely intense period of direct action, which included interruptions of city council, postering, leafletting, bird-dogging, and general public outrage that generated 3000 oppositional comments in a matter of weeks, Mayor Hales pulled his support of the project, saying, “[a]t some point, those of us in power have to listen to those who put us there.” This move essentially killed the project as no other council member would put the environmental regulation back on the city agenda for a vote.

Passing ‘No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure’ and ‘No Oil Trains’ Resolutions

As advocates mobilized to oppose Pembina’s propane export terminal, the City of Portland was soliciting public comments on its regular Climate Action Plan update. Advocates gathered hundreds of comments requesting that the new Climate Action Plan contain a provision requesting a comprehensive “fossil fuel export policy” from the City of Portland and Multnomah County. Ultimately this provision was included in the Climate Action Plan. 

By Fall 2015, Mayor Hales had become a full-fledged climate champion, having been invited to attend meetings with both the Pope and President Obama about the moral imperative of urgent climate action. In an effort to help Portland regain its position as a clear local climate leader, Hales invited climate advocates, neighborhood representatives, local businesses, labor leaders, and tribal representatives to help the City craft a fossil fuel infrastructure policy that would reflect the needs of the community and appease Portlanders who had been loudly demanding substantive action.

After thousands of letters and phone calls from Portland residents in support of a fossil fuel infrastructure ban and after two City Council hearings packed into overflow rooms with Portlanders supporting the resolution, the Portland City Council unanimously voted to pass Resolution No. 37168, which called on the City to “actively oppose the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting fossil fuels in or through Portland or adjacent waterways” and for the development of code provisions to realize this goal. This first-of-its-kind resolution also caused Pembina Corporation to formally withdraw its $500 million propane export terminal proposal, sealing a major victory for the climate. The Council also unanimously approved a resolution to formally oppose oil trains, which had proliferated in recent years as a part of the mad rush to export fossil fuels.

The Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments

In Spring if 2016, staff at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) began to act on the City Council directives contained in Resolution No. 37168. After a substantial stakeholder process which included organizations representing environmental health, neighborhood, labor, regional Tribes, and business interests, amendments to Portland’s Comprehensive Plan, and a lively and involved public process, the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments came up for a final vote before Portland City Council. 

On December 14, 2016, Portland City Council voted 5-0 to adopt the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments, which are best characterized as a strong, but partial implementation of Resolution No. 37168. The final amendments:

  • Identify “Bulk Fossil Fuel Terminals” as a regulated land use, characterized by (a) marine, railroad, or pipeline transport access and (b) either storage capacity exceeding 2 million gallons or transload facilities (such as rail-to-ship loading);
  • Prohibit new Bulk Fossil Fuel Terminals in all base zones; and
  • Classifies existing Bulk Fossil Fuel Terminals in industrial and general employment zones as “limited uses” that can continue to operate, but expansion of fossil fuel storage is prohibited.

Almost immediately, the Western States Petroleum Association, Columbia River Buildings Trades, Portland Business Alliance, and others filed suit against the new law at the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals alleging that the FFTZA violated Oregon land use law as well as the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution which prevents discrimination against interstate commerce. After several rounds of appeal and review, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that the FFTZA do not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause, giving a clear signal that local governments can exercise their health and safety powers to protect residents from the dangers of the fossil fuel industry. 

At the time of this writing, it is expected that the Western States Petroleum Association will appeal Columbia Pacific v. City of Portland to the United States Supreme Court. After litigation is resolved, advocates expect that the City of Portland will re-implement the FFTZA and resume the ban on new and expanded fossil fuel infrastructure. 

Portland and Multnomah County’s 100% Renewable Goals

Even before the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments passed and were subsequently litigated, advocates began to pursue their next policy goal: a plan from the Portland City Council for the transition to 100% of energy needs within in the City of Portland being met by renewable energy. Advocates got even more than they had initially aimed for. 

The effort began with advocates working with mayoral and city council candidates on a 100% renewable energy pledge. In early 2016, Ted Wheeler, then Oregon Treasurer and candidate for Mayor of Portland, adopted a transition to 100% renewable energy as a major campaign platform. Wheeler was elected in May of 2016 and advocates quickly pressed him to follow through on his promise. 

On June 1, 2017 — the same day President Trump declared that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords — the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission both unanimously voted to adopt 100% renewable energy targets. Though both resolutions are similar in their effect, the City of Portland Resolution No. 37289 is far more detailed, comprehensive, and ambitious — at 6 pages, perhaps the longest resolution in Portland history — and is already being utilized as model policy in clean energy campaigns from Climate Solutions, Sierra Club, and 

Portland’s 100% renewable energy resolution sets goals of achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and 100% renewable energy in all sectors (electricity, transportation, and heating) by 2050. “Renewable energy” is defined as “energy derived from hydrogen, wind power sited in ecologically responsible ways, solar, existing and low-impact hydroelectric, geothermal, biogas (including biomass produced from biomass), and ocean/wave technology sources[.]” Forest biomass “requires special consideration to ensure that ecosystem health is not harmed, that the project does not result in increased life-cycle carbon emissions, and that air quality and fish habitat is [sic] not degraded[.]” In addition, existing hydroelectric power, “requires special consideration to reduce negative ecological impacts to biological systems dependent on the affected watersheds[.]” The resolution specifically excluded “energy derived from fossil fuels, nuclear, biomass feedstocks sourced from state and federal lands, hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and incineration of municipal and medical waste” from the category of “renewable energy”. The resolution also recognized the importance of energy efficiency, calling it the “first preference for meeting energy needs”. In order to ensure that the new renewable energy policy guides city policy, the resolution calls for city impact statements accompany resolutions and ordinances to discuss how they contribute to the 100% renewable energy goal.

The final resolution is a result of significant influence from environmental justice advocates and regional First Nations representatives. Many provisions address the importance of protecting and empowering frontline and environmental justice communities. The resolution declares that “access to the financial and environmental benefits of renewable energy must be shared equitably across all economic classes, and this can be achieved through such mechanisms as community-based development of renewable energy infrastructure, equitable pricing structures, community solar programs with low-income communities, and non-profit organization leadership[.]” In order to achieve these aims, the resolution set goals of having 2% of community-wide energy needs be met by community-based development of renewable energy infrastructure by 2035 and 10% by 2050. In order to assure adequate stakeholder involvement in the implementation of the new renewable energy policy, the resolution called for the creation of a subcommittee including “Oregon tribes, communities of color, low-income residents, youth representatives, environmental advocates, City bureau representatives, and utility providers[.]”

The resolution also called for the creation of a Youth Climate Council. This provision was the result of an amendment requested by youth activists who attended the public hearing on the renewable energy resolution. 

Importantly, the renewable energy goals were immediately leveraged to defeat a new fossil fuel infrastructure project in Eastern Oregon. Portland General Electric’s (PGE) Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) contained a scenario to build new gas-fired power generating infrastructure and highlighted an important conflict between utilities, state regulators, and local governments that are transitioning their economies away from fossil fuel energy. The City of Portland’s 100% Renewable Energy Resolution — which was developed in early 2017 with PGE’s IRP identified a significant concern for stakeholders — contained two provisions directly resolving to “partner with” and “urge” utilities to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson also sent a joint letter to the Oregon Public Utility Commission urging them to certify strategies for increased renewable energy procurement beyond renewable portfolio standards instead of authorizing new gas infrastructure that would lock in new greenhouse gas emissions for decades. Ultimately, leveraging local renewable energy policy succeeded in shelving the project and moving PGE to explore “deep decarbonization” as integral to its future business model. This result demonstrated that even where local governments have limited direct authority, strong local policy combined with intelligent grassroots strategy can have large and real-world impacts.

The Portland Clean Energy Initiative

The Portland Clean Energy Initiative is an unabashed just transition measure: a tax on the wealthy corporations — designed by organizations representing communities of color, including the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP Portland Branch 1120, Native American Youth & Family Center, OPAL/Environmental Justice Oregon, and Verde — the proceeds of which will benefit those who are and will be most impacted by fossil fuel industry pollution and climate change.

As described on the PCEI website,

The Portland Clean Energy Initiative means $30 million in new annual revenue for clean energy and clean energy jobs in Portland. Nonprofit organizations, alone or in partnership with for-profit companies, schools and/or other government agencies, can apply for grants from this revenue to weatherize homes, install solar and other renewable energy projects, provide job and contractor training, expand local food production and build green infrastructure in Portland. The revenue is raised by a new 1% business licensing surcharge on the Portland revenue generated by retail corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenue and at least $500,000 in Portland revenue.

Predictably, large businesses spent significant amounts of money opposing PCEI. Despite this opposition and fear-mongering, Portland voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, signaling a turning point in the climate fight. 

As reported in the Willamette Week, Andrew Hoan, CEO of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) was conciliatory in defeat: “While we remain seriously concerned with the impact this gross receipts tax will have on Portlanders who can least afford it, we stand in agreement with proponents of this measure that much more must be done to lessen the impacts of climate change to those most affected,” said Hoan. “We look forward to finding ways we may all work together for our future.”

This about face is significant given the years that PBA has spent supporting the worst extractive industry projects (largely benefitting its members) and opposing effective climate and energy measures. However, when community advocates can produce their own policy and win at the polls, one wonders why climate advocates would need to work with the PBA at all. 

In 2019, advocates will be busy making sure that the PCEI is implemented correctly and effectively.

Portland as a Climate and Energy Action Laboratory

We live in a time of major transition, in which our understanding of what is realistic, possible, and necessary is changing incredibly fast. It is becoming more common for grassroots efforts to shape the future by demanding what people need in order to live healthy, happy lives and to ensure a habitable planet. Communities are standing up and saying no to the risks of hazardous fossil fuel infrastructure and yes to an aggressive transition toward a greener and more equitable future. When grassroots organizing, coalition building, and creative policymaking are used together, the results can be amazingly effective. And the footprint of strong, local victories can extend well beyond individual communities. We are seeing this in the Pacific Northwest, where advocates are creating an active, confident, and competent networks of climate and energy advocacy.

Portlanders have mobilized to produce a trove of important climate and energy policy that is already being utilized by communities around the United States. We still have work ahead of us in implementing our renewable energy goals and innovating approaches to dismantling existing fossil fuel infrastructure, but we have serious momentum.

We stand ready to support any communities who are taking on the fossil fuel industry and seek a just transition to a clean energy powered economy. 

(This blog post borrows heavily from a white paper I wrote called Making a Difference: Stopping Fossil Fuel Infrastructure in its Tracks, available here.)


6 thoughts on “The Portland Model for Climate and Energy Action”

  1. This is a very helpful historic overview for us new to the area. I only have one caveat. I personally do not see hydoelectri power as clean rewable energy. There is no way that dams cannot degrade fish habitat. I have known the salmon and steelhead runs were in trouble since I was a fish counter at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake rivefcirca 1977. The salmon runs of 3000 and more Chinook were at risk. We never could adjust the water flow so they could find their way up the fish ladders on one side of the dam. For every Chinook that got up to breed upstream the turbine in the dam chewed up untold numbers of fingerlings going down. The destruction of the native slalom runs was basically assured for the sake oh cheap power for the whole Damn West Coast. While I am a Pacifist I wouldn’t mourn ecoterrorism that took dams out if human life could be spared. We certainly have not spared the lives of the salmon and the orcas and seals that depend on them as food in the larger ecosystem. I read an article once in which biologists said the only way to save the salmon runs was to blow up the dams, as problematic as that would be. In my opinion we must move beyond dependence on hydroelectric power as well as fossil fuels to truly restore and protect crucial river and ocean ecosystems.

    • Sally, thank you for this comment.
      When the City of Portland was debating its new renewable energy rules, there was a significant discussion about whether existing hydro should be considered renewable. This tension is important and requires more deliberation as we design a clean energy future for the region.

  2. It is too bad they framed nuclear as part of the problem. The frame around this seems to be that they’re more pumped about pushing renewables and supporting solar panel installs, rather than sustainable clean=low carbon emissions. Nuclear power, especially new nuclear designs, is a pragmatic way to reach low emissions goals soon. Only supporting renewables? You’re looking at decades while the climate warms. We don’t have time to wait around for renewables. There is no good reason why a source of funding should be restricted from a new modular nuclear design. Most nuclear plants takes up about 1 or 2 acre of space and can power millions of homes, through winter storms all night and all day. Whereas even putting solar panels on a million homes probably will only run a few appliances in the daytime. People only think about spent nuclear fuel and they get really freaked out. It is contained. Even Paul Newman came around to seeing the benefits of nuclear power.

  3. I was at John’s talk last night in Astoria and he encouraged us to add our names to a petition for a clean water bill. I can’t find the location.


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