When Mayor Ted Wheeler reassigned the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) to Commissioner Carmen Rubio at the beginning of the month, climate activists in Portland had cause for hope.
The city commissioner in charge of BDS is responsible for the city’s decision about whether to grant a land use permit to the oil transport company Zenith Energy to continue operating its oil transportation facility in Northwest Portland. Each year, Zenith transports hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil by pipe and train from Canada through several Portland neighborhoods to its facility in the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub along the Willamette River before shipping it out.
A coalition of climate advocates in Portland has long opposed Zenith’s operations in the city out of concerns about air pollution and studies showing that an oil train derailment or an earthquake could lead to a devastating oil spill in the heart of the city.
Until several weeks ago, the commissioner in charge of BDS and Zenith’s future in the city was Dan Ryan. Ryan was in charge when the city first declined to grant Zenith a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS)—a permit the company needed to continue operating in Portland—in 2021, ruling that Zenith’s fossil fuel operations were in conflict with Portland’s climate goals.
Ryan was also in charge when the city then changed course and granted Zenith a revised LUCS in October after the company promised to phase out its use of crude oil over the next five years in favor of renewable fuels, despite the vociferous opposition of a coalition of climate organizations
Then, in the reshuffle at City Hall, Wheeler swapped Ryan for Rubio—a commissioner who, based on her public rhetoric, might have been sympathetic to the concerns of activists. When asked by the Mercury at the end of last year what her priorities for the second half of her council term are, Rubio responded “Climate, climate, climate.”
But Rubio has all but announced that she is unwilling to revisit the city’s LUCS decision—even though the city has the ability to revoke the LUCS at any point before the Oregon Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) grants Zenith the air permit it needs to continue operating its facility. The DEQ is currently evaluating Zenith’s application for an air permit.
“I am serious about moving faster and more aggressively away from fossil fuels,” Rubio wrote in a statement to the Mercury. “Last year we passed rules to permanently halt the expansion of fossil fuel storage capacity at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, and we updated our Renewable Fuels Standard to increase use of cleaner biodiesel and renewable diesel. The decision made regarding the Zenith storage facility is in alignment with those efforts, and it was processed in the same manner as every other Land Use Compatibility Statement.”
Rubio made that position clear on January 17 when a group of community organizations met with her and Ryan to voice their concerns about Zenith. The commissioners were joined by members of their staff, City Attorney Robert Taylor, and staff from BDS. The meeting didn’t last long—just half an hour, ending before many of the advocates in the room had a chance to ask questions.
“The tone was really to show how many people backed this decision,” Audrey Leonard, a staff attorney at the climate justice organization Columbia Riverkeeper, said
For the organizers in the room, the message was unmistakable: the city is not willing to revisit its decision.
Nick Caleb, an attorney with the climate justice organization Breach Collective, said the effect of the change in leadership at BDS from Rubio to Ryan has been negligible despite Rubio’s climate-focused rhetoric.
“The only difference I’ve seen is that they’re less responsive so far,” Caleb said of Rubio’s office. “The similarities between their offices is that they’re both highly risk-averse people, and I think they just made the risk assessment that [they’re] more scared of the business community than [they] are of climate activists.”
In fact, Rubio and Ryan were working together on Zenith months before the bureau reshuffle was announced.
Both commissioners attended what Rubio’s communications director Jimmy Radosta described as an “educational meeting” about Zenith’s operations at its facility in July, and public records obtained by Breach Collective and shared with the Mercury suggest that Rubio’s office was in communications with Ryan’s staff regarding public communications about the project in the buildup and immediate aftermath of the city’s decision to grant the LUCS in October.
According to Radosta, it was important for the two commissioners to keep in contact about Zenith because of Rubio’s oversight of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), which also played a role in overseeing Zenith’s operations in the city.
“Commissioner Ryan’s office did a great job of keeping our office up to date as the administrative process moved forward because of BPS’s role in zoning and the Comprehensive Plan,” Radosta wrote in a message to the Mercury.
Rubio wrote in her statement to the Mercury that she is unwilling to revisit the LUCS decision and in doing so “create a different process for Zenith that would result in the same outcome.”
But opponents of Zenith’s ongoing presence in the area find the city’s LUCS decision baffling given the ongoing dangers posed by another five years of Zenith transporting crude oil through a major urban center.
“It wasn’t that long ago that there was an [oil train] derailment in the Gorge outside of Mosier, Oregon that but for a rare, windless day [we] basically avoided a huge, catastrophic disaster,” Caleb said. “It was this big warning for everybody that this is dangerous activity that we should try to get away from as soon as possible.”
The city’s decision to grant Zenith’s LUCS was especially galling to those groups given that it also approved the new application just weeks after it was submitted, which Caleb believes was an unusually quick turnaround time that was taken so the public couldn’t mobilize against it. BDS staff told the Mercury that they aim to evaluate all LUCS applications within three weeks.
As part of its successful LUCS application, Zenith has promised to phase out 100 percent of its facility’s crude oil operations within the next five years to align with the city’s climate efforts and agreed to allow city inspectors to visit the facility to ensure that the company is complying with the terms of the LUCS.
But Zenith has a well-documented history of misleading inspectors about its operations in order to keep transporting crude oil—a point noted both by climate activists and the city itself when it initially refused to grant the LUCS in 2021.
“Zenith has proven themselves to be a bad actor, time after time and to say what they need to say to regulators to get what they want,” Leonard said. “I think that the city is really just wanting to get this out of the way and get it over with.”
There are also questions about whether Zenith’s promised shift from crude oil to renewable diesel is feasible in the set timeline.
“I imagine that in five years Zenith comes back to the city and says, ‘Oh, you know, we said we were going to manage renewable diesel, but it turns out that there’s not enough of it, so we want to keep handling whatever it is that we want to keep handling,’” Melanie Plaut, a member of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, said.
Zenith has not transitioned to using renewable fuel at any of its other facilities in the country, though it maintains that five years is the maximum amount of time it will take to complete the transition in Portland.
“We’re committed to helping the region reduce its transportation emissions by converting all of our Portland terminal’s crude oil storage to renewable fuels,” Grady Reamer, Vice President of US Operations for Zenith Energy, wrote in a statement to the Mercury. “We hope this commitment — combined with our agreement to reduce allowable air emissions by 80% at our terminal — will be viewed favorably by DEQ.”
Even if Zenith does make the transition as it says it will, Zenith critics still have safety concerns over the next five years and beyond. Plaut said that renewable diesel is flammable and still potentially explosive, with the effects of a derailment likely to disproportionately affect the lower-income neighborhoods that the company runs its oil trains through.
Lenoard said that while climate activists still want to see “accountability” from the city over the LUCS decision, their focus will now largely turn to the DEQ process. Unlike the city, DEQ will have a public comment period before deciding whether to grant Zenith a permit—giving opponents of Zenith a chance to show the strength of their opposition.
“If a Zenith oil train derails… we literally know who to blame,” Caleb said. “They could have made different decisions. And I don’t understand why that's not more persuasive to the folks on city council.”