North Portlanders Change Views on Propane, Help Defeat Terminal

Doug Larsen with his wife Jane Terzis in Cathedral Park

Doug Larsen with his wife Jane Terzis in Cathedral Park

Doug graduated in a recession and wound up on top of a wrecking ball on the Alaskan coast. A crane lowered him into a hole 70 feet beneath the beach. Doug built infrastructure for big oil pipelines. “I graduated as an economist, but carpentry work was better because it wasn’t as depressing.” Doug now leads the Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association, which has its own blog (some of the posts are so lovely they might have been written by Shel Silverstein).

This story was written by 350PDX volunteer Danny Thiemann, who interviewed two people from North Portland neighborhood associations about their thoughts about and involvement with fighting a proposal to build a propane export terminal on the Columbia River. 

Cathedral Park is located in North Portland between St. John’s and the Willamette River. The Pembina Corporation planned to build perhaps the world’s largest propane storage facility near there. “At the beginning,” Doug says, “reflexively, [the propane terminal] sounded like a good idea. The public relations team had good answers to how this fit in with global warming and jobs.” However, propane as a ‘bridge fuel’ to renewable energy is losing ground as information is revealed that propane and natural gas extraction leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, putting the global warming potential on par with coal and oil.

“People in Portland are polite,” says Doug. “You see it in traffic where one driver will stop so another driver can take a left. I saw it in those meetings with Pembina too. But when I started asking questions, so did other people and some doubt began to grow.” He spoke out against the Pembina propane terminal after questioning the proposal put forth by Pembina Corp. Doug is now of the opinion that propane is not a viable fuel, even temporarily.

Ben Poe, from Occupy St. Johns and the St. John’s Neighborhood Association, initially felt open to the Pembina project. “When I first brought [the Pembina issue] to Occupy, I cautioned them [Occupy] against knee-jerk opposition. We can’t be casual here. We need a working port. It’s part of who we are. But after attending the quantitative risk assessment meetings with Hayden Island and Glass Harbor, it was a real eye opener,” says Ben. He’s changed his mind.

Portlander Ben Poe

Ben Poe of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association

Ben describes himself as a “60’s guy.” He was very active in the 60’s and 70’s and then, “I kind of gave up. Like other people of that age I got side-tracked getting through life. I was energized by the Occupy movement, but it was all a little too big for me. The issues were too global. What drew me in was a [fight against] a 7-11 convenience store that was trying to run a local convenience store out of business.” Ever since then, he’s taken a more active role in his neighborhood.

Reflecting on Mayor Hales’ recent change of heart, Doug commented, “You’ve got to give the Mayor credit for listening to people and recognizing the unanimous neighborhood opposition” to Pembina. Doug also said that Hayden Island Neighborhood Association, Columbia RiverKeeper and the Portland Audubon Society deserve a lot of credit for the time and energy contributed to research and rallying the public for a safer city and safer climate. (Find out about these organizations at the end of this story.)

Ben pointed out some less obvious effects of Pembina as well: “The culture of the river also came up. It became apparent Homeland Security would close down the river several times a month for security, denying access to those who enjoy being near the water.” But Pembina noted to neighborhood associations that it would support the infrastructure that makes life here accessible, highlighting tax revenue and jobs.  “Pembina was estimating $90 million in tax revenue. But that was spread out over 10 years. It worked out to about $150/year per resident,” notes Doug.

For Doug, another big reason to celebrate the decision to cancel Pembina’s proposal was the trains. He said that in Longview, WA, railroad employees testified about pressures on unions to reduce the number of train engineers from two to just one, even on the mile-long oil trains, raising safety concerns. Ben agrees: “Pembina has a great safety record and even a fairly enlightened whistleblower policy. But it just covers one part—the storage—and doesn’t address rail transportation or marine transport.” The dangers of explosive rail cars passing through Portland galvanized many members of the community to stand against Pembina’s proposal.

“It’s complicated because we all live with the benefits of petrochemicals,” Doug said. “But look at what this dependence is doing.” Doug cited both local and global risks. A physicist living on Hayden Island issued a  study that noted Pembina did have a good safety record and there was very low risk of an accident, but if a tank at the planned site ruptured, it could cause a ¼ mile long fireball incinerating residential areas. Global risks also troubled him, such as evidence that the gulf stream is slowing down due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“The plumbers union is concerned about the lost jobs,” Ben said. “But we have to break this mindset of jobs versus climate change.”

Doug struggled to answer the question of how he went from working as a carpenter on an oil pipeline to raising awareness about climate change. Ultimately, he said, “Darwin might be out there, whether we like it or not.”

Update: Mayor Hales canceled the City Council hearing of the proposal in early May 2015, a significant victory for the 3,200 Portland residents who wrote letters, called in, or submitted commentary in opposition to the project, in addition to many more who were opposed. The City Attorney ruled at the beginning of June that the City Council is not required to hold a hearing on the zoning code amendment needed to build such a terminal.

Did you know that all Neighborhood Associations in Portland receive a portion of City general funds and other public resources to support their work?

Hayden Island Neighborhood Association
Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association
St. Johns Neighborhood Association
Columbia RiverKeeper
Portland Audubon Society