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Hearing gives public chance to weigh in on propane plant

By Steve Law
Portland Tribune

A Canadian company hoping to erect a $500 million propane terminal along the Columbia River gets its first real taste of public process, Portland-style, on Tuesday.

Hearing gives public chance to weigh in on propane plant

Photo Credit: JAIME VALDEZ - Port of Portland spokesman Josh Thomas (right), the Port's environmental planner Richard Vincent and Gary Conkling, a local consultant for Pembina, discuss a proposed Pembina pipeline

A Canadian company hoping to erect a $500 million propane terminal along the Columbia River gets its first real taste of public process, Portland-style, on Tuesday.

Pembina Pipeline Corp. needs a simple zone change to build a small pipeline connecting land-based propane tanks to a floating dock less than 200 feet away. The zone-change request is shaping up as a proxy for whether Portland should allow the entire project — and agree to be a trans-shipment point to export Canadian fossil fuels to Asia.

Pembina has inked a memorandum of understanding to lease a 40-acre riverfront site from the Port of Portland at its Terminal 6, located just across the Columbia River channel from West Hayden Island.

Pembina argues that propane is a clean fuel that’s safe to transport. It touts the $12 million a year it will pay in local property taxes, and says half the $500 million cost to build the plant will be spent locally.

“Pembina has handled loaded rail cars without incident for many, many years,” says Stu Taylor, a Pembina senior vice president for its gas business. “We’ve been delivering propane to the Portland area by rail for the last 15 years.”

Pembina estimates that more than half the propane will wind up supplanting the use of coal, diesel and other dirtier fossil fuels in Asia that produce more carbon emissions and pollute the air. “It’s an opportunity to move a clean fuel to replace and transition away from heavier carbon-burning products,” Taylor says.

Environmentalists worry about potential explosions from transporting propane, and note that Pembina has declined to discuss that issue. They decry the use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to extract the propane from Alberta gas fields, which involves injecting a water and chemical mix underground to pry loose oil and natural gas deposits.

“It is a byproduct of fracking for natural gas,” says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland.

Environmentalists’ greatest concern is contributing to global warming at a time when the city is working so hard to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The city of Portland estimates the plant will consume enough energy to increase the city’s carbon emissions by 0.7 percent, and, once the propane is burned in Asia, increase global carbon emissions by 0.01 percent. “The fact that we can measure both at a local and global scale is significant,” Sallinger says.

Columbia Riverkeeper and other groups are concerned about the safety of 100-car trains loaded with propane journeying through the Columbia River Gorge before arriving in North Portland. “It’s inherently unstable; it wants to turn back into propane gas,” says Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper’s conservation director. “No matter what, you have to run those trains through Portland to get to Terminal 6."

Narrow topic at issue?

At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission will hold the first public hearing on the Pembina project. Ostensibly, the hearing is about whether the city should grant a zone change to allow the use of a pipeline in an environmental overlay zone near the Columbia River and Oregon Slough.

Specially rigged trains would haul the propane in compressed liquid form from Pembina’s Redwater Facility northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, directly to the port. From there it would get transferred to two giant propane storage tanks up to 140 feet tall. From there it would be transferred via an above-ground pipeline running along the shoreline about 2,000 feet. Then the pipeline would bend 90 degrees onto a trestle in the water, connecting to Berth 607, a former World War II Liberty Ship hull retrofitted as a floating dock.

That last bend of pipeline is not allowed in an environmental overlay zone, though a truck or train loaded with propane would be allowed.

“All we’re asking for is essentially a housekeeping amendment to address this use,” says Josh Thomas, media relations manager for the Port of Portland’s Marine and Industrial Division.

City staff neutral

A proposal drafted by the Planning and Sustainability Bureau would amend the environmental zone to allow pipelines for propane only. The city allows such pipelines at port facilities on the Willamette River, says Tom Armstrong, supervising planner. “You have a situation where Terminal 6 has different rules applied to it than around the corner on the Willamette at Terminal 4 or Terminal 5,” he says.

Though the zone change is only the first in a series of government approvals Pembina will require, this may be the public’s best shot at providing comment on the entire project, Armstrong says.

Ironically, the formal zone-change request is coming from the city, not the port or Pembina. Given the significant private investment involved and potential property taxes, plus the complex environmental issues, Mayor Charlie Hales and bureau Director Susan Anderson asked her staff to devise a proposal on how to accommodate the project.

The resulting report on the requested amendment is neutral, and not a planning staff recommendation one way or the other.

The mayor wanted city planners to lay out the larger issues involved besides the simple zone change, says Matthew Robinson, a Hales policy assistant. Chief among those are safety and climate change issues, Robinson says.

“Those are going to be questions that have to be answered by the Planning and Sustainability Commission and the City Council,” he says.

One of those difficult questions is whether propane should be viewed as part of the problem or part of the solution.

Just last week, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission approved rules for the state’s Clean Fuels Program, which mandates the use of alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuel to reduce carbon emissions from transportation 10 percent over the next decade. Substituting propane for diesel is one of the many suggested ways to meet that goal.

The Port of Portland has not been interested in fielding proposals to ship crude oil or coal through port facilities, Thomas says. “We see propane as a clean alternative fuel source.”

Propane when combusted produces 80 percent fewer carbon emissions than oil and 71 percent less than burning coal, Thomas says. “Until there’s a better alternative, it’s one of the best,” he says.

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