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Portland propane export project hits environmental snag

By Kelly House
The Oregonian

A Canadian energy company’s plan to make Portland a propane-export hub seemed foolproof.

Portland propane export project hits environmental snag

Pembina Pipeline, a Canadian company, wants to build a propane export terminal at the Port of Portland. (Pembina Pipeline Corp.)

A Canadian energy company’s plan to make Portland a propane-export hub seemed foolproof.

Pembina Pipeline announced plans more than three months ago to build a terminal in St. Johns. Rail cars would deliver propane from Canada to eight massive tanks, where the fuel would be stored before being piped onto ships bound for Asia.

The project would create dozens of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue.

But Pembina overlooked a crucial detail: Portland zoning code doesn’t allow the pipeline.

Changing the code requires approval from the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and the Portland City Council.

And now environmentalists say they’ll use that process to try to derail the whole project.

Encountering roadblocks

The issue lies in a strip of land along the south banks of the Columbia River, at the northern edge of the Port of Portland’s Terminal 6.

The city placed an environmental “overlay zone” on the land in 1989 to protect wildlife habitat, prevent erosion and preserve the Columbia’s visual appeal. Restrictions include a ban on transporting hazardous materials, except by rail or truck route.

Pembina learned of the issue only after announcing its plans. Without the snag, the company probably would have secured local and state permits without a formal public process -- meaning neither environmentalists nor anyone else would have had much chance to weigh in.

City planners considered addressing the problem by adding pipeline to the exceptions, but environmentalists objected over worries that all of Portland’s environmental zones could be opened to fuel exports.

The city then proposed an amendment to limit the pipeline exception to heavy industrial sites with “a primary river-dependent industrial use” -- essentially, only the Pembina site.

The planning commission is set to consider the proposal Jan. 13. Planning and Sustainability Bureau staff members support the change, and Mayor Charlie Hales has called the project “great news” for the city.

Supporters say the terminal’s economic benefits would outweigh any environmental risks. Propane, they say, can wean consumers off of more damaging oil and coal while renewable resources are developed.

But opponents say the exact opposite.

“It makes it very hard to present ourselves internationally as a green leader when it’s clear that what we’re really into is money at any cost,” said Rowen Berman of the climate change activist group Portland Rising Tide.

Pros and cons

Pembina plans to spend $500 million to build the terminal on a 50-acre site in St. Johns, near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.

Eight tanks would store 125,000 gallons each of liquid propane refrigerated to minus-44 degrees.

Pembina won’t ask for tax breaks or incentives. The company estimates the terminal would generate nearly $92 million in property taxes over the next decade and an estimated 30 to 40 permanent jobs, plus 800 temporary construction jobs.

Tom Armstrong, a city planner, acknowledged the terminal would be “one of the larger industrial energy users in the city,” consuming some 8,000 megawatt hours of electricity per month -- enough to power more than 8,800 homes.

The propane, burned as fuel in Asia, would release 3 million to 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to city planners.

Critics say it’s hypocritical for Hales to support the terminal, then accept a federal Climate Action Champion award this month in recognition of the city’s commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from 1990 to 2050.

“At a time when we are working very hard to bring the carbon footprint of Portland down, this is a lot of new carbon into the atmosphere,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland.

Hales’ spokesman, Dana Haynes, has said the mayor welcomes public debate about the terminal.

Port officials maintain their stance is “no” to coal exports and “not now” to oil trains, but opponents fear the propane project could open Portland to other fuel exports. They also cite safety concerns, pointing to explosions in recent years at storage or transport facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

They also note that the Pembina site is in an earthquake zone and that the company has not detailed seismic protections. Company spokesman Jason Fydirchuk declined to answer questions about earthquake preparedness or any other concerns opponents raised.

U.S. Coast Guard could subject the site to a security zone of 500 yards in all directions while fuel transport ships are at berth. That could restrict boaters’ access to the Oregon Slough and parts of West Hayden Island for up to six days each month, city planners estimated.

The planning commission has allotted four hours for the January meeting, and project opponents such as Sallinger and Berman say they plan to use every minute.

Pembina has said it won’t proceed without residents’ support. The company has been meeting with neighborhood coalitions, labor organizations and conservation groups.

“We look forward,” Fydirchuk said, “to continuing the many conversations we’ve had to date with the people who are interested in our project.”

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