Important update 5/8/15: The news just keeps getting better. In a stunning reversal, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales withdrew his support for a large propane-by-rail terminal in the city. The Willamette Weekly calls it a “death sentence” for the project. As the Oregonian reported, “At some point, those of us in power have to listen to those who put us there,” Hales said in an interview. It’s a huge—and hugely surprising—win for the opposition movement to Northwest fossil fuel exports.
Yesterday at the annual Climate Solutions breakfast, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray demonstrated what the Northwest means for big fossil fuel expansion plans. Expense. Delay. And ultimately, failure.
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In February, the Port of Seattle surprised everyone by rushing through a secretive lease arrangement to host Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet for maintenance in preparation for a summer of drilling the Chukchi Sea bed off Alaska’s North Slope. The move earned bracing admonitions from nearly every environmental group in the state. Local activists are turning out more than a thousand people at opposition rallies, submitting more than 8,000 critical comments, and generating national media attention as they take on the most profitable industry on the planet.
On stage yesterday, the mayor revealed that he had a surprise of his own in store. He announced that the city’s planning department had found that hosting the drilling fleet would violate the Port’s existing land use permits. If the Port wants to proceed with its unpopular and environmentally destructive plans, it must apply for a new permit. In a way, the mayor was actually handing the Seattle Port Commission a huge opportunity: a second chance to do the right thing.
A line in the sand
Mayor Murray’s announcement was far more than a legal technicality; it was a line in the sand. The mayor made clear the enterprise is unsound and that it is out of step with both Seattle’s values and the future. In short, it’s a rotten deal.
“By a curious turn of history and geography, some of the world’s most powerful coal and oil companies need permission from Northwest communities.”
It was also an excellent example of the unlikely power that the Northwest now has over big coal, oil, and gas companies. By a curious turn of history and geography, some of the world’s most powerful coal and oil companies need permission from Northwest communities. The Northwest is home to the carbon pollution equivalent of fully five Keystone XL Pipelines’ worth of dirty energy export proposals. Yet without buy-in from Northwest communities, these companies are unable to find markets for much of the Western coal, Canadian tar sands oil, combustible shale oil, and fracked natural gas that they hope to extract and burn.
The same story has been unfolding elsewhere along the Northwest coast, a region that Sightline has taken to calling the Thin Green Line for both its importance to global energy policy and its stubbornly adversarial relationship with Big Oil and Coal. In just the last few months, the region has delivered a string of setbacks to their plans:
- The hearing examiner in Skagit County dealt Shell Oil a blow on another front when he sent the company back to the drawing board, requiring it to conduct a full environmental impact state of its plans to build a huge oil train terminal at its Anacortes refinery.
- Meanwhile, the city of Vancouver, Washington—already a sworn foe of Tesoro’s plans to build the world’s largest oil train depot on the waterfront—similarly required a full-blown public review process for NuStar’s plans to receive crude oil bearing trains at its industrial site in town.
- In Oregon, the state Transportation Commission slapped down a stealthy $2 million planned coal port subsidy. After activist-leaning commissioner Catherine Mater (a Republican former city council member in Corvallis and a former member of Sightline’s board of directors) was publicly fired, the subsidy returned to the Commission’s desk, only to be slapped down again. As Mater pointed out in the aftermath of the second vote, “Any entity that would think about proposing a coal project in Oregon—and have the arrogance to request public funding—the message is: Don’t even bother. Coal is off Oregon’s plate.”
- And it’s not just coal. In rural Clatstop County the commissioners voted 5-0 in opposition to a liquefied natural gas export scheme, a decision that was upheld by the Oregon land use board and that may well be the death knell for the project.
- The Port Commission at Longview, Washington delivered a 3-0 rejection of a propane-by-rail terminal proposal. A parallel scheme in Portland, Oregon will go before the city council this summer with opponents vowing to make the politics blistering.
- The Washington Council of Firefighters stands in staunch opposition to oil trains, even as city councils in place like Aberdeen, Washington, vote unanimously to oppose oil-by-rail facilities. Dozens of other cities and counties have also passed resolutions like Aberdeen’s.
- The Columbia River Gorge Commission, the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, plus an ever-growing number of Tribes are militating against coal and oil shipments. For instance, the Lummi Nation of northern Washington is invoking their federal treaty rights to stop what would be North America’s largest coal export terminal.
A turning tide
Consider what the Mayor’s announcement yesterday means for the oil industry. With Shell’s fleet paused at Port Angeles and the clock ticking, a delay in permit approval and maintenance work could spare the Arctic from drilling this year, perhaps buying enough time for advocates and others to scuttle the whole deal. It could well mean the difference between unleashing billions of barrels of crude oil in a sensitive ecological setting—along with billions of tons of carbon emissions into the world’s atmosphere.
The tide is turning against coal, oil, and gas. And the longer the debates continue on the public stage, the more fossil fuel companies will rack up powerful enemies. Mayor Murray’s announcement yesterday won’t be enough to sink Shell’s plans at a stroke, but it demonstrates the very real, very consequential power that Northwest communities now possess. In just the next year or two, Cascadia will decide whether it will become a speed bump on a highway of coal, oil, and gas bound for overseas markets or whether it will reject reckless fossil fuel expansion in favor of a way of life that can last. Given what we’re seeing now, I’m betting on the thin green line.