Oil coating planet Earth resulting from an oil spill. Portland could be another victim of the dangerous fuel source; the only question is when. Illustration by Everette Cogswell. 

While driving around in Portland, it is likely that you have seen some of the city’s industrial areas. One of them, on the bank of the northern Willamette river, is the Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) Hub. This hub takes up a total of 219 acres of Portland land, on which there are over 300 million gallons of oil stored in 630 individual tanks, which account for 90% of the state’s liquid fuel supply and 100% of the Portland International Airport’s (PDX’s) plane fuel. The CEI Hub is not even the biggest of its kind: Virginia Wiltshire-Gordon, a technical manager at ECONorthwest, told me that there are many more like it in the country, with the gallon count in the billions. But the concern for the CEI Hub is different because it is so close to not only a very populated area but also a hot zone for tectonic activity.

Portland sits on the famous Ring of Fire, a dangerous zone of tectonic plates that can create catastrophic earthquakes. Here in Portland, the city is greatly overdue for a Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake, often referred to by locals as “The Big One.” This massive earthquake would cause enough damage on its own, and now the city also needs to take into account what that earthquake would do to its fossil fuel stores. Since the Hub was built before modern understanding of seismic activity in Portland, the ground on which many tanks are built has the potential to liquefy when the CSZ earthquake hits. This liquefaction, in addition to how many of the tanks were simply poorly constructed, could likely lead to the destruction of the CEI Hub and the spread of the oil. First, a tsunami would hit Oregon from the Pacific Ocean, then a flood from the CEI Hub would hit the state too.

If and when this earthquake comes to pass, it could release almost 200 million gallons from over 350 tanks into the surrounding area, 43% of which would quickly flow into the Willamette River, the rest going into the ground and air, according to ECONorthwest, a consulting firm based in Portland specializing in economics. Wiltshire-Gordon shared that on top of the physical spillage of the fuel, there would likely be explosions and fires caused by the oil, as many of the contained oils are flammable and there will undoubtedly be fire sources after “The Big One.” 

There are three main areas that would be most affected by this earthquake and the subsequent oil spill: the people themselves, the environment, and the economy. It could affect places far beyond the Portland area as well.

Wiltshire-Gordon shared that a lot of the potential damages depend on the time of year. “During high flow months, river currents could transport certain types of fuels to the ocean within [three] days whereas in the summer it could take as many as 15,” she said. In the wake of “The Big One,” it is near impossible that transportation would remain unaffected, and so it would be incredibly difficult for anyone to stop the oil from reaching the ocean once it starts on its path through the rivers. 

The oil spreading into the water would decimate so many fish populations that are crucial to Native communities, affecting access to Native fishing rights throughout the region. The Willamette River has long been important culturally to many Native American tribes in the region, and the destruction of the river’s ecosystem would jeopardize a key facet of many tribes’ way of life in the Pacific Northwest.  

Wiltshire-Gordon explained that the immediate areas surrounding the CEI Hub “are most likely to risk injury or death based on an explosion or fire.” The CEI Hub is not nearly far enough away from the general populace to guarantee any safety for the city in that regard. The surrounding area would also be greatly affected, especially in the long run. “The direction of the wind and air movement plays a large role in determining who would be most affected by an airborne plume of contaminants. It’s certainly possible for the entire region to be impacted and for sensitive groups to be impacted worse such as young children and those with health conditions like asthma,” said Wiltshire-Gordon. 

Portland is familiar with air pollution, but this wouldn’t just be smoke from fires; there would be truly dangerous toxins in the air.

The cost of this event taking place would be astronomical, racking up to between $359 million and $2.6 billion across nine different categories of damage. The most costly categories are, unsurprisingly, cleaning the damage up after the fact ($109 million to $1.4 billion), and managing the impacts on human health ($121 million to $249 million). That’s not to mention the long-term prices, which could be different in the next 10 years.

Looking more deeply into the potential harm of the CEI Hub, we also need to consider the sustainability of storing the oil even if they were to be rebuilt. To continue storing oil in this city will only further endanger its population and everything surrounding it. Even if we were to make seismic upgrades to the most precarious tanks, due to the predicted magnitude of the CSZ earthquake, it is still likely that there will be impactful amounts of fossil fuels in our city that should not be there.  

At this point, the city is making no moves to remove the Hub, but in 2016, a policy was proposed to restrict the expansion of the CEI Hub. Since then though, groups such as the Portland Business Alliance have taken legal action, arguing that the policy would endanger many local jobs that the city needs. The case made it all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, where it was ordered that the policy be revised, and it has been revised twice since then. At this point, the policy stands that expansion on the Hub is not allowed, but this does not apply to jet fuel or renewable fuel, so they are allowed to add tanks that contain these specific fuels into the CEI Hub.  

While this is definitely a step in the right direction, we do need to acknowledge that simply not adding more fuel does not diminish the danger posed by the fuel that is already there. As said by Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal at a city council meeting in June 2022, “we have to use all of the tools at our disposal to act now to protect our shared future and to minimize the harms threatened by fossil fuels storage and transportation.” Renewable energy is great, but it is still a danger to citizens in an earthquake, fuel needs to be a safe resource for citizens in all aspects, and the city is just not at that point yet.

Portland remains at risk no matter what preventative measures the city takes; as long as there is oil in the CEI Hub, the populace and the environment are in danger, whether by the effects of climate change, or those of the inevitable oil spill. 

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