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Biofuels – Portland Approves new Pipelines for Zenith Energy Renewable Fuels

Biofuels – Portland approves new pipelines for Zenith Energy renewable fuels.

The city of Portland has approved a request by Zenith Energy to build three new pipelines at the Northwest Portland fossil fuel terminals on the Willamette River.

The Texas-based company says it will use the 12-inch pipelines strictly to transport renewable fuels, including renewable diesel, biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel, which are typically produced from vegetable oils, greases, animal fats or other waste products.

The pipelines are part of the company’s plan to phase out crude oil storage by October 2027 under an agreement with the city, said Grady Reamer, Zenith’s chief commercial officer.

The new infrastructure will help us efficiently transition out of crude entirely over the next few years.

Zenith is one of 11 fossil fuel terminals along the river, where it offloads and stores fuels at its site before transferring them to ships bound for refineries, local markets and other destinations along the West Coast.

The company first raised controversy when it began importing and storing tar sands crude oil by rail from Canada shortly after buying the terminal in 2017.

The pipeline approval comes four years after Portland rejected a similar Zenith proposal. At the time, the company also said it wanted to build three pipes for transporting biofuels and a low-toxin chemical used to make polyurethane.

City officials turned down that request because Zenith acknowledged the new pipelines would be physically capable of transporting fossil fuels and a 2015 city policy opposes the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland. Zenith then threatened to sue the city unless it reversed the pipeline decision.

The city stayed firm, the lawsuit did not materialize and within months Zenith withdrew its permit application for the pipeline project.

Two years later, the city sought to block Zenith’s operations by denying it the land-use credential it needed to renew its air quality permit with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. A court battle ensued. But last October, the city reversed course and Portland leaders gave Zenith a controversial stamp of approval for five more years of crude oil storage after the company promised it would then transition to all renewable fuels.

The city said Zenith’s eventual transition meets Portland’s climate and environmental goals, including its focus on cleaner biodiesel and renewable diesel.

In the approved land-use credential application, Zenith stated it may have to build new dock pipeline connections to handle the increase in renewables.

Two of the newly approved pipelines will run between a dock owned by McCall Oil and Zenith’s terminal across the street and a third pipeline will connect the dock to an existing pipe that runs from the McCall site to Zenith’s property. A portion of the pipes will be buried underground. The pipelines won’t cross any neighborhoods.

Reamer said the new pipelines will be capable of transporting any liquid, including crude oil. But that’s irrelevant, the company said, because once a pipeline is dedicated to carrying a “clean product” like renewable fuel, it cannot be switched back to carrying crude oil.

“It’s operationally impossible to switch back and forth between oil and renewable fuel because the oil contaminates the clean product and it’s prohibitively expensive to clean the lines,” Reamer said. “Both the physical limitations around fuel switching and the permit conditions Zenith has agreed to dictate those pipelines carry renewable fuel.”

Environmentalists and local activists said construction of the new pipelines could indirectly increase the risks of explosions, fires and spills associated with fossil fuels’ transport and the potential for a massive spill in case of a large earthquake.

That’s because Zenith could use freed-up existing pipelines for increased fossil fuel transport, said Nick Caleb, an attorney with the Breach Collective, a Eugene-based climate justice advocacy organization.

Nick Caleb, an attorney with the Breach Collective, said:

Given their track record, it seems likely,” Caleb said. “Portland residents’ risk from liquid fuel transport will likely increase.

But Reamer said the new pipelines will lead to less fossil fuel storage. He said Zenith’s storage is already on track to be 50% renewable by the beginning of April.

The company also pointed to two seismic risk assessment reports commissioned by Zenith in 2020 and 2022, which concluded that several of Zenith’s tanks did not pose an earthquake risk. The company’s contractor is currently studying the rest of the tanks, the company said.

The green light for the pipeline project comes as Zenith is awaiting the approval of a new air permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Environmentalists and Multnomah County commissioners have asked the agency to deny that permit.

The three pipelines were approved as part of a “greenway review” because they will be built within the River Industrial Greenway overlay zone, which is meant to preserve and enhance habitat along the bank while continuing to attract river-related industries. Zenith still must secure a commercial construction permit and a zoning permit for inspection of the required landscape plantings.

The pipeline approval decision can be appealed to the city by Jan. 16.

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