Portland Blocked Fossil Fuels, What Now?

Forging a wall of resistance from San Diego to Vancouver, BC.

Liliana Schilling took a seat at a heavy wooden table facing the five-member Portland City Council on Nov. 12. Together with two other Sunnyside Environmental School students, her mission was to testify in favor of a landmark resolution that called for the city to oppose expanding infrastructure intended to transport or store fossil fuels through or in Portland, Oregon.

She told of how eighth-grade students from Sunnyside had visited California’s Catalina Island last year to study underwater kelp forests only to discover that the forests had disappeared. “Global warming is looking pretty bad,” she said, “but this doesn’t mean that this has to be our future.”

Less than an hour later, the council passed the resolution 5-0. The packed crowd erupted in cheers, exchanging hugs and snapping photos to commemorate history in the making. The vote was an indication that erecting local barriers to fossil fuel production as a remedy to global warming was paying off.

National leaders “have been bought off by the fossil fuel industry.”

“Portland is the first city in the country—and perhaps the world—that’s adopted strong language opposing the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure based on health, safety, and climate change,” said Daphne Wysham, who helped mobilize support for the two resolutions as a coordinator with the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network.

Wysham thinks West Coast cities are where the action’s at to stop fossil fuels, but admitted that the resolutions are meaningless without implementation. National leaders “have been bought off by the fossil fuel industry,” she said. Portland’s resolution follows on activist campaigns that influenced Shell Oil’s decision to abandon oil exploration efforts in Arctic waters and President Obama’s move to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline.

Turning the resolution into policies is one fight that lies ahead. Another is forging a wall of resistance from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia; otherwise energy companies can bypass green cities like Portland. Blocking the transport and storage of fossil fuels—the intent of the Portland resolutions—must be coupled with campaigns like “keep it in the ground,” which is trying to make federal lands and waters off limits to fossil fuel development. Then there is the issue of transitioning to renewable energy and weaning regions and countries off fossil fuel economies.

The next battle won’t be child’s play. The city of Portland must now task agencies and bodies to draft policy and code changes. To avoid encroaching on federal power over railroads and interstate commerce, new measures will be based on the municipal government’s power to regulate the health, safety, and welfare of its residents. This means emphasizing the inherent dangers of transporting and storing fossil fuels, their role as the primary causes of climate change, and the risks posed by natural disasters.

“That process is going to be difficult because that’s where the Portland Business Alliance, the port, and the building trade unions will intervene, as they mostly sat out the hearings,” said Nicholas Caleb, a climate-justice activist in Portland and lawyer who helped draft a memo for the city outlining how to implement the resolutions. “This will largely happen behind closed doors, and the ones best able to take advantage of the process will be those with lawyers.”

One argument that got little traction was jobs. It failed in part due to the limited number of jobs at stake.

A similar battle has been playing out in Vancouver, Washington, which sits across the Columbia River and is part of the Portland metropolitan region. Vancouver has already dealt a blow against fossil fuel infrastructure, though its process, which is likely to be a model for other cities, was marked more by cold business decisions than fuzzy appeals to children’s futures.

In June 2014, the Vancouver City Council approved a lengthy resolution against plans for an oil terminal and oil trains intended to transport 5.5 billion gallons of fracked oil a year from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota to the city and then to West Coast refineries. Climate change was never mentioned in the resolution. Instead, Vancouver was spooked by the potential for oil train disasters, such as the July 2013 derailment that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. The city also pointed to risks to 3,300 residential properties and 1 million square feet of commercial real estate planned for the riverfront.

“The developers in Vancouver are fighting a political war against the oil companies,” Caleb said. “They’re building condos on the waterfront, and the fossil fuel exports are a risk to their business model.” In both Vancouver and Portland, much of the opposition to fossil fuel development stems from rivalries between different business sectors. Banks and developers are winning out over dirty fuels and heavy industry. Caleb said that given the rapid gentrification underway, “the new Portland is going to be condo and green development anyway, so these resolutions are not inconsistent with that vision.”

“The fear,” Caleb said, “is that Portland becomes a green enclave and doesn’t look at what’s happening on the outside.”

During the Portland hearings, “branding” was frequently heard in the debate over conflicting profit models. One witness, Eric LaBrant, commissioner-elect to the Port of Vancouver, said a proposed oil terminal there poses “significant risk in terms of the branding of Vancouver and its livability.” Last spring, during a debate on whether to site a new propane terminal on the Columbia River, one Portland official said, “we’re going to get soot on the brand of Portland.”

LaBrant told YES! Magazine that in his race, which was dominated by the issue of the oil terminal, what resonated with more conservative voters in Vancouver were concerns that firefighters were understaffed and ill-equipped to handle an oil-train disaster, and property values would take a hit from the oil terminal.

While it might seem crass that profit and marketing motives are shaping the debate over how to limit climate change, activists are under no illusion about the might of the energy industry. Caleb said while global warming is a more prominent issue in Portland than other cities, stopping fossil fuels is so important it may be necessary to have an alliance of convenience with developers on that issue.

“Dirty towns don’t attract jobs in new industries like software and clean energy.”

One argument that got little traction was jobs. It failed in part due to the limited number of jobs at stake. Vancouver’s oil terminal, which is not yet dead, is slated to produce 120 permanent full-time jobs, and Portland’s proposed propane terminal offers 40 such jobs. After initially championing the terminal, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales withdrew support when environmentalists bombarded politicians’ offices with thousands of phone calls and emails and swarmed meetings where the proposal was discussed.

But in a major port city like Tacoma, Washington, jobs will have more weight. There are at least 26 different fossil fuels projects proposed for the Pacific Northwest, including Tacoma. During the Portland hearings, union officials gave a taste of how the energy industry is trying to split progressives in this area. Willy Myers, executive secretary-treasurer of the 15,000-member Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, claimed Portland was taking a “stand against the working class” with the resolutions, as they would be “devastating and add to the wage inequality in the state.”

“I wish the people in this room had the same passion for income inequality as they have for fossil fuels,” said a second union official. His comments were met with jeers and boos.

“Business interests are saying, ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs.’ But you know what, I’m hearing? ‘Money, money, money,’” said Rev. Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian-Universalist minister in Portland who gave a forceful rebuttal. “We want and deserve jobs that are green and sustainable and that will lead us to a transition away from fossil fuels.”

Some unions, such as the Portland Association of Teachers, National Nurses United, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, have also been leading the charge against fossil fuel development. Cager Clabaugh of ILWU told the Portland City Council his local chapter voted unanimously against a fossil fuel project on the Columbia River “because we know one spill will destroy the whole river, put the whole system out of business as long as it takes to clean up the spill.”

Many small businesses also see a brighter future in a green economy. “Dirty towns don’t attract jobs in new industries like software and clean energy,” said Don Orange, an auto garage owner and representative of Vancouver 101, a coalition of more than 100 businesses in the city. Based on analysis by Vancouver 101, he said, each job the oil terminal created in Vancouver would lead to a loss of 15 jobs in other sectors.

This confluence of interests makes Wysham hopeful that the fight against fossil fuels is gaining momentum. “If you’re stopping fossil fuel infrastructure, you’re plugging the pipeline long before it comes to market, long before it’s a twinkle in the eye of investors,” she said. “It’s like a game of chess. First we shut down the Keystone XL pipeline, then we shut down the Northern Gateway Pipeline in British Columbia. Now we’re going after the tar-sand oil companies that have made it very clear they want to see millions of barrels of oil coming through Vancouver and other port cities. I am feeling optimistic because we are starting to close off all the chokepoints.”

This post first appeared in Yes! Magazine.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who contributes to YES! Magazine, the Nation, Telesur, the Progressive and the Washington Post. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City and author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).