Defeating Big Oil: You powered this work

We celebrate victory over the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal proposal in Vancouver, WA.

How grassroots efforts in Vancouver beat big oil

Red-shirted oil terminal opponents packed Gaiser Hall in October 2013. Join us in the same room on April 5, 2018 to celebrate grassroots victories over massive oil and coal projects.
"Raise your hand if you oppose this project” Gaiser Hall, Vancouver, WA; Oct. 30, 2013.

As I reflect on the recent victory over Tesoro’s oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, WA, my coworker Dan Serres is helping plan the victory celebration. But five years ago, a victory party was tough to imagine.

Back in 2013, I sat alongside many of you at a Port of Vancouver meeting. It was a well-planned charade. Tesoro’s team of consultants explained that building the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in the heart of Vancouver was perfectly safe. Bakken crude oil trains through the Gorge: safe. Emissions from huge storage tanks near neighborhoods: safe. Oil supertankers in the estuary: safe. The Port Commissioners lobbed softball questions and nodded knowingly at Tesoro’s rehearsed answers.

I was itching to jump up and interrupt this sham process. When a Tesoro executive compared Bakken crude to “mother’s milk,” my co-worker—a new mother—was aghast. But we knew this would be a long fight and that Tesoro would win the first round. The Port approved the lease, and the $210-million project enjoyed a glow of inevitability.

Two years later, I stood on stage at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver looking through the lights at an audience of 500. Next to me were two Vancouver City Councilors (the City had just voted to oppose Tesoro), the President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, a business owner, and a local pastor—all there to speak passionately about protecting Vancouver and the Columbia River. The project’s glow of inevitability was fading. I believed, for the first time, that we would win.

What happened?

People joined together to protect what we love. We organized. We litigated. We outworked and outsmarted the oil company’s squadron of engineers, attorneys, and public relations consultants every day for five years. You powered this work. Thank you.

This victory was a wonderful and diverse group effort. Local heroes in Vancouver, labor unions, neighborhood associations, businesses, faith communities, progressive elected leaders, and non-pro t organizations came together with a common vision. Our Stand Up to Oil coalition wove local fights into a larger campaign. And tribal nations, including Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Cowlitz, were absolutely critical to this victory. An oil train fire in Mosier, OR, also undercut Tesoro’s safety pitch.

When Governor Inslee rejected Tesoro’s permits in January, that glow of inevitability was a distant memory, replaced by the fiery passion of local residents.

I wish there was a magic formula to defend our communities. There is not. I wish that Washington and Oregon were too progressive to support any dirty fossil fuel projects. But that’s not true either—the Kalama methanol refinery, Jordan Cove LNG, and other ill-conceived proposals still threaten our communities and our climate.

By the time Tesoro came to town, we had gained experience and skills from victories over LNG and coal export terminals. “ During those campaigns, I saw clearly: To win, we must execute a strategy built on community organizing, coalition building, and aggressive legal work.

How we work is as important as the results. I’m most proud that Riverkeeper partners with local activists to support their incredible efforts. Dan Serres’s quote, from an in-depth Oregon Public Broadcasting story on the victory over Tesoro, captures this feeling perfectly:

"The Pacific Northwest is stopping those proposals. We call ourselves the thin green line, but I think it’s bigger than that. It’s community by community, really envisioning a cleaner future. And I think it gives people hope that we don’t have to keep building this infrastructure. We can do better than this and we are.”

Victory in Vancouver

The Tesoro Savage oil terminal is finished. Join us on April 5, 2018 to celebrate this and other victories over oil and coal pollution.