The Port Westward saga: how a once promising biofuels facility became an oil and coal train hub
On the Columbia River, 70 miles north of Portland, is Port Westward, a quiet corner of Oregon that has lately endured more than its share of controversy and headlines. In 2008, Cascade Grain built a massive $200 million ethanol plant which was touted as “an environmental success story”. The facility even garnering $36 million in state loans and tax credits. Then abruptly in 2009, the company filed for chapter 11 as it fell victim to the same downturn many domestic biofuels producers did, crushed by rising commodity prices and skittish financial support.
After years of loan repayments, legal battles and sparing production, the facility (renamed Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery) was sold to Global Partners in early 2012 for $94.2 million. A surprising amount for a struggling site, until it was revealed that the company planned to ship crude oil, not ethanol through the port. This 180-degree flip was an insight not lost on local watchdog, Columbia Riverkeeper. "Ethanol tanks paid for by taxpayer dollars were transitioned into oil tanks without the public knowing about it," said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director in an Oregonian interview.
This facility was approved to switch to crude after applying for permits in June 2012 in just 22 days. For context coal terminals in both Oregon and Washington face years of permitting and impact assessments, a process they’ve been in since 2011 in many cases. The company was approved for 50 million gallons of oil, but between December 2012 and November 2013 the port saw 297 million gallons of crude roll into its riverside facility. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality called this a state’s rule violation of the “highest level”. Upon violating this permit, the company then received a new one on August 19th 2014 to move 1.8 billion gallons through the state annually, one that would allow 50 mile-long trains per month.
Just upstream from the Port of Westward (via Columbia Riverkeeper)
Somehow the story doesn’t stop there but takes a shift towards an even dirtier form of energy. The Port has been looking to ship coal since it first filed for permits in 2012, a proposal to export 8.8 million tons of Wyoming coal up the Columbia to Asia. The Port then petitioned for $2 million of state funds to refurbish a World War II era dock to better equip coal shipments. But unlike the oil permitting process, this use of public funds required government approval from the Oregon Transportation Commission. This initial filling did not go well for the newly turned fossil fuel export hub. In a 3-2 vote The Commission denied the Port’s request, which had been deemed essential for upgrading the facility to receive coal.
The story then takes a strange political turn. Catherine Mater, the leader of the state’s Transportation Commission and the deciding vote in approval, was fired by then Governor Kitzhaber. The Governor was an outspoken critic of coal export, but mysteriously fired Mater for her “activism” and the “process” of approval rather than her vote specifically. But like a bad date that can't take a hint, the port came knocking at the Commission’s door for the same upgrade project earlier this year. With Mater off the commission, the vote looked to have much better odds. But last Thursday (March 19th) in a move that only serves to highlight the bizarre process this whole facility has gone through, outspoken coal export supporter Commissioner Tammy Baney switched her vote. “I’m not going to hold up good projects for the sake of one project moving forward,” said Commissioner Baney, in a brief statement that showcased her clear fatigue for the situation.
Like towns and counties across the Northwest, residences near the Port of Westward facility are still reeling from the incredible shift our region is headed towards. A center for clean energy innovation, outside pressures are pushing our region to the brink of becoming a fossil fuel hub. Nowhere is this transition starker then with Port Westward.
Nick Abraham - editor and lead contributor of Oil Check Northwest
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Port Westward filed for coal permits in 2014. They in fact filed in 2012 as part of a wider project.