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How will fossil fuel stance affect city?

Portland’s relationship with fossil fuels appears to be a complicated one.

On the one hand, the City Council has been in a fired-up hurry to pass a resolution banning any new infrastructure that would transport or store fossil fuels in Portland. Environmentalists are calling the resolution the strongest statement of any U.S. city against the use of carbon-producing fuels.

But at the same time, Portland-area residents are jamming up freeways, heating their houses and offices, and engaging in myriad activities — such as lighting their homes for the holidays or recharging their smart phones — that require abundant use of these very same fossil fuels. Aligning the city’s first-in-the-nation resolution with the everyday behavior of its residents will be tricky at best.

That job will fall to city bureaus, who have been directed by the council to develop policies that reflect the hurried resolution’s intent. The original idea may have been to restrict the export of fuels from Portland, but the resolution is so broad that its target now is unclear.

That’s because Mayor Charlie Hales and his fellow city commissioners were in a rush to make a gesture against global warming. Since they weren’t willing to slow down their deliberations before now, they should commit to a detailed discussion later of the actual policies that will flow from this action.

The resolution, which received final approval last week, lumps all fossil fuels into the same category. It doesn’t distinguish, for example, between facilities built to handle coal shipments and those constructed to transport natural gas. Although both coal and gas produce carbon when burned, some people see natural gas — if appropriately extracted — as a better short- to mid-term alternative because it produces much less carbon than coal.

Natural gas also happens to be a substance that hundreds of thousands of local residents depend on for heat or cooking. The council’s resolution specifies that it is not intended “to restrict the provision of service directly to end users.” What exactly does that mean, when it comes time to build new systems that carry gas to people’s homes?

If taken at face value, the council’s resolution raises a concern about how these new policies can be reconciled with the city’s soon-to-be-updated comprehensive plan, which is supposed to guide Portland’s growth over the next 20 years. Portland claims it can accommodate 123,000 new housing units in that time period, thereby preventing the need for an expansion of the region’s urban growth boundary. However, the plain language of the council’s anti-carbon resolution says the city “will oppose expansion of infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting or storing fossil fuels” in Portland.

How can all that construction occur without enlarging the capacity of local utilities that serve these new homes?

City commissioners say they have no desire to restrict the distribution of fuels to individuals. These issues, they say, will be sorted out by the bureaus tasked with developing policies to implement the sweeping resolution. Commissioner Nick Fish, who introduced several amendments to the resolution at the last minute, says the council will have the final say about those policies, and he also is committed to making sure the new carbon regulations don’t have a negative impact on blue-collar jobs in Portland.

These practical questions are important to explore, but they don’t even touch on the really contentious issues, such as the resolution’s actual effect on global warming vs. its ramifications for a local economy that will be powered by fossil fuels for some time to come.

Portland is a small dot on the globe. Aspirational resolutions have their place, but vast changes in carbon production will come from new technologies, and from billions of people — not mere thousands — changing how they consume power. Portland’s City Council has dashed out in front of other cities to make a statement. Now, it needs to spell out exactly what that means for the people who actually live here.