Audubon Climate Heroes

How One City Banned Fossil Fuels (Sort Of)

Portland, Oregon, is leading the fight against climate change, one small city law at a time.

While we wait for world leaders to make big-picture decisions on how to tackle climate change, some smaller cities are taking matters into their own hands. Last month, leaders in Portland, Oregon, took a major step toward combating climate change by passing the United States’ most aggressive fossil fuel infrastructure ban yet. The new policy is the latest in a series of environmental moves—from opposing a propane installation to hindering oil exploration in the Arctic—which have made Portland one of the greenest cities in the country.

The resolution doesn’t ban fossil fuels altogether—since the community still relies on them to some degree—but it states that any new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructures are prohibited. This means that pipelines, tank farms, storage facilities, or export facilities can no longer be developed in the area. (Existing facilities can stay, and they'll be reviewed and upgraded as needed.)

The threat of expansion from fossil fuel industries was real: Canadian company Pembina Propane, for example, wanted to establish a massive propane facility in the region last year. Portland’s Mayor Charlie Hayes originally was on board with this development—it was, after all, a half-billion dollar enterprise that would benefit the city financially—but due to intense opposition from the public, he withdrew support last spring and became a dedicated conservationist practically overnight.

“The Mayor listened to the community, looked at the facts and was convinced that we are destroying our planet,” says Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland's conservation director. “He knew we needed to take aggressive action.”

Around the same time, city “kayak-tivists” went head-to-head with a Shell oil rig passing by Swan Island and Greenpeace demonstrators hung from St. Johns Bridge to stop an Arctic-bound icebreaker, fueling the conservation fire.

“There was a lot of sentiment in the community that we needed a policy on fossil fuels so that we wouldn’t have to combat these companies one at a time,” says Sallinger. As result, Hayes announced two resolutions in the fall: the first opposed oil trains passing through the region, and the second basically said “no” to new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Both policies were passed unanimously by the city council a few months later. “I’ve worked on environmental issues in Portland for 23 years and I’ve never seen anything this big move this fast,” says Sallinger.

Sallinger attributes this speedy outcome to Portland citizens’ dedication. Over 500 people crowded into city hall for the first and second hearings and dozens of testimonies were heard, from children to local tribes to businessmen. Members from the Audubon Society of Portland, the Sierra Club, the Columbia Riverkeeper, and the Climate Action Coalition participated as well.

Recently, other U.S. cities have also been rallying to defend the environments they can control: Last year, South Portland, Maine, banned the transferring of oil from a pipeline to tankers; Allamakee County, Iowa, barred a plethora of fossil fuel extraction schemes; and Dryden, New York, declared industrial gas operations to be illegal through zoning laws. Motivated by their neighbors in Portland, residents of Vancouver, Washington, are currently fighting the proposed establishment of a huge oil transfer terminal in their port.

“I think there are a lot of people watching what’s happening in the Pacific Northwest right now and being inspired by it,” says Sallinger. “When cities start to stand up and move the needle on this issue, that’s when the change is really going to begin. There were people at the hearings holding up signs that said ‘cities lead,’ and I think that’s exactly right.”

Interested in getting involved in the fight against climate change? Here are some tips from Sallinger about where to start:

  1. Get out in front of proposals by trying to institute local policies that limit new fossil fuel infrastructure—it is much easier to have that conversation before there is a proposal for a half-billion dollar facility to fight. Look into modifying zoning or land use planning regulations to require public input or comment before new infrastructure is built. 
  2. Go to public hearings that will affect your community and agree to testify if needed—or just show your support by attending.
  3. Come up with creative protests that could attract national news coverage and attention.
  4. Remember that leadership at the local level is important—if one city after another begins to stand-up and say "no" to new fossil fuel infrastructure, it could reverberate at a much larger scale.

For more, check these out:

Spread the Word On Climate

What Birds Tell Us About Climate Change's Threats

Solar Opportunities, State by State

How to Get Solar Power Without Putting Panels on Your Roof

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Audubon Society of Portland as Portland Audubon. 

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