Loophole City, Oregon

The City of Portland’s decision to let Zenith Energy extend its oil-by-rail operations in Portland is facing widespread condemnation from community members, environmental organizations, and environmental justice advocates. 

November 15, 2022

The Latest on Zenith Energy’s Oil-by-Rail Terminal

Interviewed by Kate Murphy, Community Organizer

headshot of Audrey Leonard, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper
Audrey Leonard, staff attorney

Audrey Leonard is a staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper. Audrey protects the Columbia from fossil fuels and promotes the transition to a clean and just energy future. A Midwesterner at heart, Audrey grew up on a farm in Indiana and uses that background to understand the unique challenges faced by people in rural areas. Below, Audrey discusses the current state of the campaign to stop Zenith Energy from bringing dirty, dangerous oil trains through Portland.

What is the most recent development in the fight to stop Zenith?

On October 3, 2022, the City of Portland quietly approved Zenith Energy’s latest request for a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS). The LUCS allows Zenith to continue bringing oil trains into Portland. In exchange, Zenith promised to stop hauling crude oil, and transition to “renewable” fuels, within five years. The City made the deal with Zenith in secret and did not take any public input, despite long-running community opposition to Zenith’s dangerous oil-by-rail terminal. 

Who made the deal to let Zenith keep shipping oil for five more years? 

The Bureau of Development Services, under the leadership of Commissioner Dan Ryan, approved Zenith’s new LUCS.

Didn’t the Oregon Supreme Court uphold the City’s decision, in 2021, denying a LUCS for Zenith? 

Yes, sort of. The City denied Zenith a LUCS in 2021. Courts found that the City had the legal authority to deny Zenith’s LUCS, but sent the decision back and asked the City to provide more supporting evidence. 

If the City re-adopted the 2021 LUCS denial, would that shut down Zenith immediately? 

No. The City’s denial of the 2021 LUCS is not effective unless the City re-adopts that denial after providing more evidence that Zenith’s operations violate City policy. Zenith could challenge the City’s new evidence and continue running oil trains while courts heard the case. That process could take a year or more. And if Zenith won that appeal, Zenith could continue shipping crude oil indefinitely, instead of stopping after five years. 

Could the City improve the 2022 LUCS to make Zenith phase out crude oil faster? 

Yes. The City could withdraw the 2022 LUCS, take public input, update the LUCS conditions to put more restrictions on crude oil, and provide evidence to support the changes. However, Zenith could appeal an improved LUCS and continue shipping oil during the years it would take courts to decide the appeal.        

Is it possible to challenge the 2022 LUCS in court?

Columbia Riverkeeper is evaluating a legal challenge to the 2022 LUCS based on the City’s failure to give the public notice and an opportunity to comment. This type of challenge could force the City to re-issue the LUCS after taking public input, but would not immediately halt Zenith’s operations. 

Does the current deal between the City and Zenith represent meaningful change, or just greenwashing?

Some of both. After years of dirty, dangerous oil trains and repeatedly misleading regulators, Zenith is clearly attempting to greenwash its image. That said, the dedication from community members, smart legal strategy, collaborative coalition partnerships, and our love for one another and the environment forced Zenith and the City to promise to end the last oil-by-rail terminal in the Columbia River basin. And that is meaningful change, though it is happening slower than we hoped. We will not stop fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground!

What is Columbia Riverkeeper doing now? 

On November 1, 2022, twenty community and environmental justice organizations sent a letter demanding that the City withdraw the 2022 LUCS and allow public input before making a new decision. We also sent a public records request to shed light on the City’s secret negotiations with Zenith. And as I already mentioned, we are considering a legal challenge based on the City’s failure to take public input on this important decision. 

How can people help? 

The City needs to hear loud and clear that backroom deals with untrustworthy oil companies are unacceptable. Here are a few things you can do right now. 

  1. Sign & share our petition
  2. Call and email each member of the Portland City Council 
  3. Attend upcoming “Rumble on the River” community forums about Zenith.
  4. Sign up for Columbia Riverkeeper emails to stay informed about new developments in the fight against Zenith.  
  5. Share this post with your networks.