The Thin Green Line Through a Pandemic

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has shaken global oil and gas markets with plummeting oil and gas prices. While the Federal Reserve has started propping up parts of the industry, the downturn in fossil fuel consumption is likely here to stay. We’ve also seen important victories during the pandemic, with Indigenous-led movements and rural communities holding the line and forcing stoppage on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and winning an outright victory against the Atlantic Coast pipeline.

pembina-blogStill, as we celebrate these new prospects for a faster clean energy transition, it is also important to recognize that the fight is far from over in the Pacific Northwest. Our region is unique—positioned as we are in the  ‘midstream’ between extraction sites and energy markets in Asia; we’ve seen countless dubious and destructive projects proposed here. We don’t yet know what fresh schemes the fossil fuel industry will attempt, nor what will happen to the myriad exports projects, like the Pacific Connector Pipeline, which still threaten our communities and lands closest to home.

For now, the best way to understand these changes is to look closer at our local context—at how projects have developed through quarantine and the ways communities and local governments are fighting back. Thanks to David Hupp, a Hood River resident and longtime organizer, we now have an up-to-date list of most proposed, expanding, and already defeated fossil fuel export projects in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. His report, called the “The Thin Green Line”, documents some 30 active projects at varying levels of proposal and development (a total of 19 are in British Columbia alone). Check out the whole list and then see how you can get involved in local resistance campaigns! (for questions about the report, reach out to David at davidhupp@charter.net).

Below are three major projects CSE and our allies have been organizing against in Oregon and Southwest Washington: Kalama Methanol, Zenith Energy, and Global Partners. Though we may be in our living rooms instead of the streets, for each, there are important ways you can help hold the line and advance a clean energy transition.

Kalama Methanol Refinery

Proposed as the largest methane to methanol refinery in the world, this project in Kalama, Washington, has faced years of sustained resistance from local communities. The international company behind the project, NW Innovation Works, originally claimed its methanol produced at three refineries would go to offset coal-fire-powered plastic production, but each refinery would emit more than 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and up to 7 million tons when “upstream” methane leakage is taken into account.

When it was discovered the company had vastly underestimated the project’s greenhouse gas emissions (and when reporters uncovered that the methanol would go to fuel not plastics), the Washington Department of Ecology intervened to require a full Environmental Impact Assessment. That assessment is now expected to appear this month.  Once it is released, we will have a 30-day comment period and a hearing will take place sometime in those 30 days.

Columbia Riverkeeper and Washington Sierra Club have been supporting community resistance to this project, and they need as many volunteers as possible to mobilize for this comment period. Sign the Sierra Club’s petition and email Kate Murphy at kate@columbiariverkeeper.org to find out how you can get involved!

Oil by Rail at Zenith and Port Westward

Construction at the Portland, OR, Zenith oil terminal, August 2020. Photo: Joan Rothlein.

As oil prices began to plummet during the early months of the pandemic, community activists began closely monitoring the Zenith Energy facility in Portland, which moves tar sands crude oil (notoriously the dirtiest oil on the planet) by rail from Alberta, Canada to refineries in California, Washington and Alaska. Some signs early in the pandemic pointed to fewer oil trains in our region. In March, oil by rail traffic from North Dakota dropped 11 percent as compared to the same month the previous year. Canadian oil by rail, meanwhile, went down 4 percent from its all time high in early 2020. In the months since the downturn, activists noticed that Zenith was continuing to bring in oil trains, but had shifted to moving Bakken crude instead of tar sands, even as ships leaving the facility joined a flotilla of tankers waiting offshore to unload at oil-glutted California refineries.  They also noticed growing piles of dirt and rock at the facility, flanked by an array of construction equipment.

It is unclear what Zenith is building, or whether the construction is legal at all, given that none of their recent permit applications to expand have been fully approved, thanks to the sustained pressure of activists. In May, we won a major victory when the company backed out of building a pipeline for a toxic, fossil fuel-derived chemical called methyl diisocyanate (MDI), which it had been attempting despite permit denials from the City. Instead, Zenith announced plans to invest $25 million to develop the site for biofuels. At the same time, the company received a negative credit rating and rumors emerged that its backer, Warburg Pincus, had plans to sell Zenith. We’re skeptical of Zenith’s intentions, given the company still plans to move tar sands and has a dubious track record of ‘flipping’ which fuels they handle. Zenith also has a history of rushing construction under outdated permits and without any community input (to this date, they’ve never shown up in public). The entire facility has been operating with an outdated air permit that expired in 2012.

As Zenith moves to renew this air permit this year, we’ll be watching closely and we’ll need your support to hold them to account for their flagrant disregard of the City’s 2016 ordinance banning new fossil fuel infrastructure and endangering our communities. Stay tuned for more to come.

Meanwhile, downriver at Port Westward in Columbia County, a company called Global Partners has been pushing to expand its crude oil transloading facility to handle ethanol and other biofuels. Though they claim to be moving away from crude oil, the company recently applied for an air permit that would allow them to move as much as two unit-trains of crude oil by rail per day through communities in the Gorge, Vancouver, Portland, and Columbia County. Activists filed over 1200 comments in opposition to this permit, but in flagrant disregard for these concerns, Oregon DEQ granted the company the air permit just weeks after the public comment period ended.  You can speak up against this egregious decision by attending the next Environmental Quality Commission hearing on September 18, and telling DEQ to hold the company accountable to its public statements by not allowing any more crude oil by rail.

Support Vancouver, Washington’s Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Moratorium

After defeating the largest oil by rail facility ever proposed in 2018, activists in Vancouver, Washington have been organizing to make sure no project like it can ever come again by adopting a local ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure, similar to Portland’s landmark ordinance. In November, Vancouver City Council will vote to turn the existing moratorium into law. Support the momentum by signing the Washington Sierra Club’s petition for bold climate action in Vancouver.

 

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