Fossil Fuel Industry Attacks Local Control - We Fight Back

By Dan Serres, Conservation Director

Portland fossil fuel resolution packed city hall.
Packed house – An overflow crowd watches as students give testimony in support of Portland’s strong fossil fuel policy.

We did not expect the fossil fuel industry to give up its ambitious plans for expansion without a fight, and the beginning of 2017 is showing us more about their plan of attack. On three fronts, the railroad industry, oil industry, and their legislative allies are pushing for a rollback of key decisions that Oregonians won in 2016 to begin steering our region away from dirty fossil fuels that pollute the Columbia River and destabilize our climate. At the local, county, and state level, Riverkeeper is committed to cementing the victories we won in 2016 and protecting our towns from dangerous oil trains, fracked gas pipelines, and other forms of dirty energy.

In 2016, the City of Portland passed a first-of-its-kind fossil fuel ordinance that used the City’s own land use authority to prohibit new major fossil fuel projects, such as oil train terminals. The landmark ordinance enjoyed overwhelming support during public hearings, but the fossil fuel industry quietly planned a challenge to the new ordinance. In January, the Western States Petroleum Association and Portland Business Alliance filed a challenge to Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals seeking to overturn the ordinance. Riverkeeper is working with Crag Law Center and a coalition of allies including Sierra Club, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Portland Audubon Society, and Center for Sustainable Economy to defend the City’s decision.

People in Portland and throughout the Northwest will fight tooth and nail to defend what we love from dirty fossil fuel projects and their climate-wrecking impacts. The City of Portland made history when it adopted the fossil fuel ordinance. We stand in solidarity with the City and will work to defend the groundbreaking ordinance against industry attack.

Meanwhile, further upriver, another battle took shape as Union Pacific asked a federal court to force Wasco County to host a major expansion of railroad tracks – an expansion designed to facilitate more oil and coal train traffic. Wasco County had denied Union Pacific’s surprising, tone-deaf attempt to double its track capacity in the same area where an oil train derailed, spilled, and burned in June 2016. In essence, Union Pacific argued that the County has no right to protect its community and should put railroad interests ahead of the objections of sovereign tribal nations.

Lauren Goldberg, Staff Attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, summed up the situation, “Columbia River communities are still reeling from the fiery oil train derailment on Union Pacific’s tracks. Union Pacific’s profit-driven lawsuit won’t bully Gorge communities. Even the nation’s biggest railroad must submit to federal laws and treaties with Indian Nations.”

Riverkeeper is supporting Friends of the Columbia Gorge and joining its legal effort to defend against Union Pacific’s disregard for public safety and reckless expansion of oil train traffic through the Columbia River Gorge, including through tribal fishing sites and towns like Mosier.

Mosier Oregon oil train derailment, June 2016, photo by Paloma Ayala.

Now in Salem, the fossil fuel industry is looking to augment its legal challenges with a sweeping, broad new bill in the Oregon legislature that would prevent local communities from applying any local laws to fossil fuel projects. Clearly inspired by opposition to Portland’s landmark fossil fuel ordinance, HB 2480 would dramatically undermine local communities’ ability to protect their own health and safety from dangerous fossil fuel projects. Yet the bill would have sweeping impacts throughout the state, prohibiting local agencies from applying commonsense rules to dangerous projects. This wrong-headed bill will hopefully fail in the Oregon legislature, and Riverkeeper is working with allies like 350PDX, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others to safeguard local communities’ right to defend the health and safety of our neighborhoods from dangerous fossil fuel projects like oil train terminals.

Take Action: We are also on offense this year in the Oregon legislature. Riverkeeper is supporting bills that strengthen the state’s ability to address oil train risks. To learn more about these bills, and to send a message to your legislator, click here.

We know that 2017 will be a critical year for defending our river, our communities, and our climate. We look forward to working with all of our members and fantastic partner organizations to continue the momentum we built in 2016 with major victories over fossil fuel polluters in Portland, Wasco County, and the Columbia River Estuary.