Portland OR demonstration
Portland's first-of-its-kind zoning ordinance, which banned new fossil fuel projects within city limits and prevented existing facilities from expanding, was overturned under pressure from the Western States Petroleum Association.

Big Oil Overturns Portland’s Landmark Fossil Fuel Ban

Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Back in December last year, we all hailed the city of Portland for taking a remarkable step by banning new fossil fuel infrastructure projects within city limits. With this move, it became the first city in the US to take such a bold step forward. Portland mayor, Charlie Hales at the time, said this is the first stone in a green wall across the West Coast. Then the zoning ordinance drew a challenge from the oil industry and the Portland Business Alliance. This week, the fossil fuel expansion ban got overturned by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. With us to discuss the fossil fuel interest behind this and what’s next for the city, we are going to speak with Nicholas Caleb. He is from Portland, Oregon. He is an attorney with the Center for Sustainable Economy, the organization that intervened in the recent appeals case. Thanks for joining us, Nick.

Nicholas Caleb: Nice to be here.

Sharmini Peries: Nick, the city of Portland had already decided what was good for the city and its citizens, so who was behind overturning the decision and will the decision stand?

Nicholas Caleb: In the, I guess, the direct sense, the Land Use Board of Appeals agreed with the Portland Business Alliance and the Western States Petroleum Association that the ban violated the Constitution. Essentially, their argument was that the ban discriminated against out-of-state commerce, and that that was intolerable. On the city side, we believed that we had a really strong case that saying no to new fossil fuel infrastructure would protect local residents from spills, explosions, derailments, all of the risks that come with the fossil fuel industry, in addition to the climate impacts from it as well. I think that, even though we’ve lost at the Land Use Board of Appeals, they’re not really experts in constitutional law, and I think we have a good chance on appeal.

Sharmini Peries: All right. Then what were the arguments being used more specifically in terms of the overturn?

Nicholas Caleb: There were some technical land use arguments that basically surrounded whether or not the city considered certain pieces of evidence or other plans in the region, and those are all correctable. Even if there are deficiencies there, it’s very easy for the city to just hold additional processes to consider those. But the main issue is the constitutional question, whether or not local governments have the power to protect their citizens from the fossil fuel industry. In this case, LUBA said we don’t. We strongly believe that we do have that power. In fact, it’s just an absurd conclusion to not believe that cities can protect their residents from explosions, spills, and the like.

Sharmini Peries: Give us some background here in terms of how the ordinance actually came about and what the consensus was at the city council. Was there any discussion, debate? Were there people from the oil industry at the time that the ordinance was passed?

Nicholas Caleb: Yeah. Our story is about two and a half years old. In the Northwest, we’ve been fighting back against a slew of oil, coal, and gas export infrastructure projects that have been proposed, and we’ve been remarkably successful across the region at doing so. In Portland in 2014, we got a proposal for a propane export terminal, which would have been one of the biggest capital investments that our city had ever seen, $500 million. They would be bringing 37,500 barrels or about 1.6 millions of gas per day via rail from Canada into Portland. They’d be putting it in this large facility and then shipping it overseas.

When advocates got a hold of this, it was pretty much a done deal. The port had negotiated with Pembina and had already gone about getting the city’s consent without any real public process. When we found out about it, we went a bit berserk, started researching the project, found out how dangerous it was, learned a lot more about methane leakage, and advocates uniformly opposed it. We were basically told that we had no chance of defeating this proposal, but somebody made a mistake and didn’t know that there was a land use code that prevented piping of propane across sensitive environmental zones. The city would have had to change the code in order to do that, and we used that as a way to mobilize against the propane export terminal.

In the process, we mobilized thousands of Portlanders. We postered all over town. We canvassed. It was right around Earth Day, so we were at every single event that we could possibly be at. It became the talk of the entire city, and a mayor who had previously supported this project ultimately was shamed into changing his mind. Nobody on council would touch the project, so it died. It was a huge victory for us, but we didn’t stop there with defeating the project.

In fact, we had been thinking for a while that we need to change the game a little bit. We can’t constantly be on the defense and having to spend all our resources opposing these individual projects. We approached the council with an idea that they should pass changes in law to actually ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, so then we could get to the good work of creating that green energy economy that everybody knows is on the way. That process ultimately ended in last December as you correctly noted, and we had our code changes. It wasn’t the only recommendation that we made to council, and we don’t think it’s going to be the last sort of attempt at banning new fossil fuel infrastructure, but it was our first try.

Sharmini Peries: Right. Talk a bit more about the organizations involved in bringing about this legal challenge to the fossil fuel ban. The Portland Business Alliance, we talked about. You also mentioned the Big Oil behind this. Give us a sense of who they are. Who are you fighting?

Nicholas Caleb: Well, the Western States Petroleum Association is the oil industry on the West Coast here. Obviously, their interests are not aligned in fossil fuel bans. They want to export as much oil as possible. The Buildings Trades were another group that … There are a lot of jobs in these temporarily in building this infrastructure, so they were not happy about the ordinance. They were a party in the lawsuit as well. Then there’s this group called the Portland Business Alliance, which is kind of a stand-in name for all of the large companies, both local corporations and multinationals in Portland, and they lobby together under this name of the Portland Business Alliance and also file lawsuits from time to time.

One thing that’s interesting about the Portland Business Alliance is that, in the Northwest, we have a lot of companies who like to pretend to be environmentally-friendly corporations. At least 20 members of the Portland Business Alliance signed on to a letter recently saying that they wanted to uphold the Paris Accords. We’ve got an organization with members who are sort of greenwashing their images and talking about how climate-friendly they are and really getting on that bandwagon, and at the same time, paying dues to an organization that’s fighting local governments who are actually trying to take strong action to prevent runaway climate change.

Sharmini Peries: Right. To some extent, you can understand why labor unions are also in there organizing to save jobs, yet there’s been lots of research and lots of good work done in terms of greening the economy and how a transition could actually take place for workers. Retraining into green jobs would also give them healthier jobs to work at. Is this kind of dialogue happening in Portland as well?

Nicholas Caleb: It is. In fact, just in June, we passed our renewable energy goals. The city decided we wanted to be 100% renewable by 2050 in all sectors, and in electricity by 2035. As a part of this policy statement, there was a lot of thought that went into, how are we going to transition our workforce into this new renewable economy? That groundwork has been laid. Then there are a lot of environmental justice organizations that have been thinking about how we can actually get money for this, and are proposing a ballot initiative that will be introduced probably in a few months here to actually tax corporations to get money to fund this just transition.

Instead of it being an abstract concern, we’re actually going to put money in the hands of people who need it, put money into workforce training, and put money into those communities that would otherwise be left out of this transition. It was really disappointing that we couldn’t get the Portland Business Alliance to sign on with this vision. They kind of step in where they want to and take credit, but ultimately, if we’re going to get to meeting our climate goals and getting this just transition, we’re going to have to say no to new fossil fuel infrastructure. The Portland Business Alliance definitely was not on board with that.

Sharmini Peries: Nick, following Portland’s lead, the city of Seattle and its council unanimously passed a resolution this past June for no fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Discuss a coalition that’s forming across the West Coast, including Canada, in terms of this fight back and the ban struggle.

Nicholas Caleb: Yeah. As I mentioned earlier, in the Northwest about six or seven years ago, we became aware that there was just a slew of fossil fuel projects that were being proposed up and down the region. We’re not a fossil fuel region. We don’t extract, and so it was a very unique situation. It took us a little bit to get our bearings, but a study revealed, I think, at that point there were 28 projects that came all at the same time for export. It was a signal about how the global economy is shifting. The United States is quickly becoming a resource colony rather than a resource consumer as it has been.

A lot of folks started to study that. We found out, according to Sightline at least, those projects, the volume of fossil fuels they’d be moving, would be equivalent to five times the amount of fossil fuels they’d be moving through the Keystone XL pipeline, so game over on climate for sure. We started mobilizing up and down the region to beat these projects back one by one with direct action and also joining into the formal permitting processes. We’ve had remarkable success. But at some point, it just drained so many resources to have to fight each of these individual processes all on their own.

In Portland, we wanted to change that logic and actually start the process of having people buy in to saying no ahead of time, just categorically saying we’re not going to be investing any more in the fossil fuel economy. It’s dangerous and it’s expensive, and there’s too many risks for the public. When Portland did that, it was the first, and when Seattle jumped in with their resolution, it was very exciting. They’re in a position now, actually a really strong position, I think, because they get to see from our side what are the things that are working and not, and there’s also a lot of expertise that’s been developed in Portland over the last few years.

As I mentioned before, the ban on fossil fuels in our zoning code wasn’t the only idea that we’ve come up with. We’ve kind of got a menu of options that Seattle can choose from. We’re going to hit on … Based on political change and based on this movement in the Northwest, we are going to tip over the point of no return in terms of moving toward our renewables economy. I think Portland and Seattle are going to be the linchpins in that movement.

Sharmini Peries: Nick, finally, in terms of the reversal on this decision to ban infrastructure, fossil fuel infrastructure, in Portland, now is this decision a done deal, or is there going to be an appeal and a fight back on your part?

Nicholas Caleb: Well, from the intervenor standpoint, at Center for Sustainable Economy and our colleagues, we’re very interested in pursuing the appeals process. We also believe that the city of Portland will appeal the ruling. The mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, released a statement yesterday saying that the city is committed to fighting to protect the health and safety of Portlanders, and that the threats from the fossil fuel industry are real. We believe that our city council is still in line with the values of the fossil fuel infrastructure ban, and that we’re going to fight this through.

We’ve also got other ideas. I think one of the things that is unique about fossil fuel commodities is just how much of a risk they pose in the public. They get to earn massive profits while the public bears that risk. We’ve got some ideas for also forcing that industry to internalize its costs. We’ll be debuting some more ideas in the near future. I think we’re just getting started. This is a speed bump, setback, for us, but there’s a lot of momentum in our region. There’s a lot of excitement. One judge making a bad decision is not going to get in the way of this movement, so we’ll fight on. We’ll work with Seattle, we’ll work to do better in Portland, and we’ll keep fighting this fight to kill the fossil fuel industry.

Sharmini Peries: All right. Nick, I thank you so much for joining us. Keep up the good fight.

Nicholas Caleb: Thanks very much.

Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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