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Portland City Council adopts position against expanded oil shipments by train, delays fossil fuel export ban


TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - Protesters provided political satire outside City Hall on Wednesday. The Portland City Council voted 4-0 Wednesday on a resolution opposing increased crude oil shipments by train through the city, as several hundred supportive Portlanders looked on from the council chambers and multiple spillover rooms. The resolution also expresses City Council opposition to Tesoro’s proposed oil terminal across the river in Vancouver, which could bring a massive increase in oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge.

A companion measure to bar new fossil fuel export facilities in Portland — which figures to have much more impact — proved more controversial. The council ran out of time to debate proposed amendments and put off a final vote until next Thursday, Nov. 12. From the tenor of Wednesday’s debate, though, that resolution looks likely to pass as well.

“It’s not just symbolic” to oppose more oil trains, said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who spearheaded that resolution. “This is about the future.”

The City Council previously came out against proposed coal export facilities that would send open-air trains filled with coal through the Columbia River Gorge and then Portland, Fritz recalled. “Here we are to do it again.”

As oil drilling booms in North Dakota and elsewhere in the U.S., there’s been a flurry of proposals to transport the oil to the West Coast, essentially using mile-long trains as moving pipelines.

City officials recognize that trains are regulated by the federal government, but they hope the city will inspire other jurisdictions and politicians to take similar actions, thus putting pressure on federal leaders.

It’s the city’s job to address public safety, said Mayor Charlie Hales, and the city fire chief says there is little the city can do to protect against the kind of train derailments that caused massive death and destruction in recent months in Quebec and in U.S. cities.

Hales, while out sailing with his wife, recalled a time when a railroad bridge over the Columbia River got stuck, impeding traffic on the river and the rail line. A worker came out with a sledge hammer and banged the track until the rails were aligned so a train could pass, Hales said. That didn’t make him feel secure about the nation’s antiquated rail system.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - A couple hundred people rallied before Wednesday's City Council meeting in support of a pair of resolutions against fossil fuel exports and oil shipments by train. The oil trains allowed by U.S. regulators could puncture in a derailment of a train going as slow as 12 miles an hour, said Michael Lang, conservation director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “It’s inherently unsafe.”

“We’re playing Russian Roulette essentially, every time an oil train goes down the Columbia River,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the Columbia Riverkeeper.

The council also heard from Eric LaBrant, who won election to the Vancouver Port Commission on Tuesday on a platform opposed to the Tesoro terminal at that port.

The regional economy relies heavily on the Columbia River, LaBrant said, but fossil fuels represent the economy of the last century, not the future.

Commissioner Nick Fish, while supporting the resolution, concluded it is “largely symbolic.”

However, the second resolution figures to have more teeth, perhaps barring proposals such as Pembina Pipeline Corp.’s proposed $500 million propane export terminal at the Port of Portland.

Mia Reback, the newly hired staffer for 350.PDX, said time is running out to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels around the world, to avert major climate disruption. At the current rate, she said, “We have at best 15 years before we blow through the world’s carbon budget.”

Mayor Hales, the chief proponent of the fossil fuel export ban, recalled his recent meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on the pope’s encyclical about climate change.

“We have to leave much of the fossil fuel that we’ve already discovered in the ground,” Hales said, echoing the pope. “There is very little time and we must act now.”

Bill McKibben, cofounder of the international 350.org group that is crusading to minimize climate change, addressed the council from Washington D.C., where he spent part of the day working on a bill with Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Portland.

It is no longer a “quixotic” quest to shift the world to renewable energy sources, McKibben said. If the fossil fuel export ban passes, he said, “Portland will go down as an absolute leader among all jurisdictions, cities, counties, states, and nations if it does this.”

Olivia Miller, an 8th-grader at Sunnyside Environmental School, was one of several youth to testify.

“Today you are setting an example for the rest of the world, and right now that is exactly what we need,” she said.

But a handful of business and labor representatives urged the City Council to give the fossil fuel export ban a bit more study.

The rushed process to conceive the resolution was “lackluster,” said Marion Haynes, vice president for government affairs at the Portland Business Alliance.

Willie Myers, executive secretary treasurer for the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, said the resolution would have a “devastating” impact on middle class job prospects in Portland. He might have been referring to jobs from the Pembina project, as well as others.

City Commissioners Nick Fish and Steve Novick proposed amendments to the fossil fuel export resolution, but the council didn’t have a chance to discuss those.

That is slated to occur starting at 2 p.m. next Thursday.