Baltimore votes to ban crude oil export terminals

If signed by the mayor, if would become the first East Coast city to ban a specific kind of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Oil facilities near Baltimore. (CREDIT: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Oil facilities near Baltimore. (CREDIT: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

The Baltimore City Council voted on Monday night to pass a ban on any new or expanded crude oil terminals within the city. If signed into law by the mayor, Baltimore would become the first on the East Coast to ban a specific kind of fossil fuel infrastructure.

“This bill is a common sense step to protect the communities of Baltimore most at risk from transport of crude oil and to limit the expansion of climate-polluting fossil fuels,” Leah Kelly, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement after the bill passed. “We don’t need more of these potentially hazardous crude oil shipment facilities in the city.”

The bill, which passed by a vote of 14 to 1, adds crude oil export terminals to the city’s list of banned facilities, which currently includes things like nuclear power plants and trash incinerators.

A group of community activists and environmental groups worked together to move the bill forward, arguing that it would help reduce the possibility of increased crude oil train traffic through the city. Crude oil trains are extremely volatile and have been implicated in a number of deadly derailments including an explosion in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people in 2013.

According to records obtained by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Baltimore — which currently houses two crude oil export terminals — saw nearly 100 million gallons of crude oil shipped through the city between 2013 and 2014.

Train traffic is the purview of the federal government, which has been slow to issue stringent regulations on crude oil trains despite an uptick in traffic sparked by the domestic oil boom of the late 2000s. So Baltimore decided to use a tactic currently being tested in cities along the West Coast — using local zoning codes to prohibit specific kinds of fossil fuel infrastructure. By banning new construction of export terminals, advocates hope that will mean fewer oil trains passing through the city on their way to ports.

The most far-reaching example of this strategy has been Portland, Oregon, which in 2016 used its zoning code to ban any new or expanded “bulk fossil fuel terminal,” defined as anything with a storage capacity of 2 million gallons of any kind of fossil fuel.

While Baltimore would not be the first city on the East Cost to use its zoning code as a means to prohibit the shipment of fossil fuels — South Portland, Maine, passed an update to its zoning code in 2014 that bans the action of loading crude oil onto marine tankers — it would become the first city to ban a specific kind of infrastructure, similar to what Portland, Oregon has done with its zoning code.

Amending local zoning codes to prohibit fossil fuel infrastructure hasn’t come without challenges, however. In response to an industry lawsuit, an Oregon land use administrative board initially ruled that the policy violated the U.S. Constitution by running afoul of the Interstate Commerce Clause, which holds that only Congress can regulate business between states. But the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that cities have the right to protect themselves from local concerns like volatile fossil fuel infrastructure.

It’s unclear whether Baltimore’s ban — if signed into law by the mayor — will face similar challenges from industry.

Supporters of the Baltimore bill are planning a rally for March 19 to try and put pressure on Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D), who has not indicated whether she intends to sign the bill.

“By passing this bill tonight, our City Council has voted to uphold its commitment to take action on climate change in the face of dangerous federal deregulation and climate denial,”  Taylor Smith-Hams of Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund said in a statement on Monday night. “Now it is up to Mayor Pugh to solidify Baltimore’s climate leadership by signing this bill.”