From her home in lower South Baltimore, Keisha Allen can see the long queue of train cars that roll by every day a few hundred feet away. Some are loaded with obvious cargo — coal, for instance, rolls by uncovered on its way to nearby export terminals.
But until a few years ago, Allen had no idea that some of the cars that pass just beyond her home are loaded with crude oil, a volatile and toxic substance that has been implicated in a handful of derailments and explosions, including the deadly catastrophe in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people in 2013.
“The thing that bothers us the most is the fact that it is volatile,” Allen told ThinkProgress. “You trust your government enough to protect you, and that’s not what was happening.”
Railroad transportation is under the purview of the federal government, which has been slow to implement safety regulations to keep up with an increase in crude oil trains spurred by the fracking boom of the late-2000s. So Baltimore residents like Allen — in partnership with local environment and climate groups — are hoping to curb oil train traffic using local action. Their tactic: a bill currently before the Baltimore City Council that would prohibit any new crude oil terminals within the city.
It’s a novel approach that supporters say would help reduce the amount of crude oil train traffic the city sees in the future. And, if it’s successful, it’ll be the first time a progressive climate strategy born on the West Coast has been replicated on the East Coast.
“Anyone who you talk to about this issue, especially if they live right next to the rails, says that they can’t believe it is happening and not being adequately regulated by the federal government,” Jennifer Kunze, a Maryland state organizer with Clean Water Action, told ThinkProgress. “I think that Baltimore is ready to pass this kind of legislation.”
The path towards banning crude oil terminals in Baltimore began in 2014, when the Houston-based energy company Targa Resources proposed expanding an existing crude oil terminal in the industrial neighborhood of Farfield.
The proposed expansion — which would have allowed the company to handle an additional 12.6 million gallons of crude oil — prompted concern from local residents, who worried that an increase in crude oil trains could endanger the health and safety of communities living along the rail line, as well as climate groups, who felt that the expansion would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.
Together, environmental, public health, and community groups formed a coalition to push back against the proposal. While there was no way for the groups to stop the oil trains from coming into the terminal, they rallied around a particular air pollution permit that the Maryland Department of Environmental Quality would need to issue to Targa, voicing their opposition at public hearings and town hall meetings.
Despite issuing Targa a preliminary approval, the Department of Environmental Quality eventually told the company that it would not issue the permit unless Targa provided more information about the expansion plans. In 2016, Targa announced it would be abandoning plans for the expansion.
For the local residents and environmental groups that had organized in opposition to the issue, the announcement that Targa would no longer be pursuing the plan was a victory, but one tempered by reality. The city still had two operating crude oil terminals, and saw nearly 100 million gallons of crude oil shipped through the city between 2013 and 2014, according to records obtained by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
“It was a really exciting win, but it was also a wake-up call,” Clean Water Action’s Kunze said of Targa’s 2016 announcement. “With Baltimore being such an important port, and with potential more domestic drilling, if the market took an upswing, we could get more terminals and those we might not be able to stop.”
At the same time that activists and residents in Baltimore were organizing against Targa, something very similar was happening across the country in Portland, Oregon.
‘The first stone’
In 2014, Pembina — a Canadian energy company — proposed building a propane terminal in Portland. Like in Baltimore, a coalition of community, environmental, and public health groups organized in opposition to the project, eventually pushing then-Mayor Charlie Hales to recant on his initial support for the project. And, like in Baltimore, when the project was eventually abandoned, the coalition celebrated a tentative win — and got to work thinking about ways to prevent new terminals from being proposed in the future.
In Portland, that thinking manifested in a proposal to amend the city’s zoning code to prohibit bulk fossil fuel infrastructure from being built — or expanded — within city limits.
In 2016, after nearly a year of work between environmental groups and city officials, the city council unanimously voted to adopt a new set of zoning codes that carved out a new prohibited land use category for “bulk fossil fuel terminals” — defined as anything with a storage capacity in excess of 2 million gallons of any kind of fossil fuel, from propane to crude oil.
Industry groups immediately challenged the ban, arguing that it ran afoul of the United States Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, which holds that only Congress can regulate business between states.
Initially, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals — an administrative body that decides land use issues within the state — sided with industry, ruling the ban unconstitutional. But this January, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the Land Use Board’s ruling, effectively paving the way for the ban to go into effect (though the decision will likely be challenged to higher courts).
Despite legal challenges, Portland’s fossil fuel infrastructure ban has already inspired a wave of similar action along the West Coast, from a crude oil ban in Vancouver, Washington to a temporary moratorium — that could become a permanent ban — on unrefined fossil fuel shipments in Whatcom County in northern Washington.
When Portland’s ban initially passed, Mayor Hales — then in his final month in office — told local media that he hoped the policy would serve as a blueprint for other cities beset by proposals for fossil fuel projects. The ban, he said, would be “the first stone in a green wall of resistance against fossil fuel facilities on the West Coast.”
But with a crude oil terminal ban looking like a distinct possibility for Baltimore, Hale’s vision of a green wall could spread well beyond the West Coast.
“I don’t know that we would have pushed through this zoning code strategy if not for what was happening on the West Coast,” Kuze said. “It has been really inspiring to see the progress that Portland and Vancouver and Whatcom [county] have made on taking local leadership on this issue.”
Unlike Portland’s ban, which prohibits nearly all kinds of fossil fuel infrastructure, Baltimore’s ban would narrowly focus on crude oil export terminals, adding them to a list of banned facilities that currently includes things like nuclear power plants and trash incinerators. The proposal has already survived two rounds of voting in city council — one in a smaller committee and one before the entire council — and is heading to a final full council vote on March 12. If it is passed, it then heads to the mayor’s desk for a signature.
But far from representing the final action on the matter, proponents of the policy hope that the mayor’s signature would kick off a wave of local action similar to what is currently happening in the Northwest. The hope is that it will inspire nearby communities to enact their own crude oil bans — a movement that proponents argue could help make a dent in the amount of oil train traffic that passes through the region.
“It’s not only Baltimore City,” Allen said. “I hope that the surrounding Maryland counties as well as any other state and jurisdiction that runs these kinds of crude oil trains will band together and talk to their legislators about how dangerous this is.”
Update: An earlier version of this story stated that Baltimore would be the first East Coast city to enact a fossil fuel infrastructure ban. South Portland, Maine, has banned the flow of crude oil from pipelines onto marine tank vessels, but has not banned the development of any particular infrastructure.