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Protesters hold up signs opposing Pembina's proposed propane export terminal for the Port of Portland, Terminal 6, during a hearing at the Planning and Sustainability Commission in Portland, Ore., on January 13, 2015.Alex Milan Tracy

When one of Canada's biggest energy companies recently came to Portland to build a new shipping terminal, the project looked like a done deal.

And then, virtually overnight, everything went wrong.

Last September, Pembina Pipeline, a Calgary-based energy transportation giant, announced plans to build a new propane export terminal at a Port of Portland site on the banks of the Columbia River. At the time, the project enjoyed the backing of myriad economic development groups, as well as Portland's mayor.

That was until this month, when Mayor Charlie Hales abruptly pulled his support and publicly urged Pembina to kill the project altogether. The reason for the mayor's change of heart? A groundswell of opposition to the project, led by environmental groups – opposition so massive it suddenly turned a project once seen by many as an economic no-brainer into something politically toxic.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the backlash against Pembina's proposed shipping terminal is that many of the project's most vocal opponents base their opposition not only on the perceived faults of the project itself, but primarily as part of an overarching stance against the very concept of building more fossil-fuel infrastructure of any kind.

"I don't think Pembina has acquitted themselves well in this process, but I think the driver on this issue really is community values – we don't want to be part of this industry," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland and one of the leading opponents of Pembina's proposed shipping terminal.

"You're seeing a lot of people willing to take these kinds of stands despite a lot of money being waved around."

In Portland, it is not the multibillion-dollar energy company – armed with promises of hundreds of jobs and millions in new tax revenue – that's winning the battle for political clout. It's the environmentalists.

For the better part of two years, Pembina searched up and down the west coast for a marine terminal from which to ship propane to Asia. Currently, shipping the fuel from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the Asian market involves a 25-day trip through the Panama Canal, or a 50-day trip around South America, according to Pembina executives. But using the West Coast as a starting point cuts travel time to just 12 days. As such, the company sought to build a West Coast facility where propane, delivered by train, could be loaded onto ships and sent across the Pacific.

Last summer, Pembina seemed to have found a perfect site at the Port of Portland – a long, narrow stretch of land on the south bank of the Columbia River, which splits northernmost Oregon from southernmost Washington State. Not only was the site already zoned for heavy industrial usage, it also had pre-existing rail service and a dock, not to mention a relatively vast pool of labour just a few minutes' drive away in Portland. Pembina announced its intentions to build on the site in early September.

At least in the early going, the project seemed destined for approval. The Port of Portland, eager for a big-name economic partner, was thrilled. Even Portland's mayor was on board.

Then came a minor technical hiccup. It turned out the property on which Pembina planned to build its terminal required a zoning code amendment to allow for the building of an above-ground pipe from the site to the nearby dock. That zoning change, however, automatically triggered a series of public hearings.

It was at those hearings where opposition boiled over. Many activists and residents from communities near the proposed site – upset that there had been little in the way of public consultation before that point – arrived at the hearings and argued vehemently against the project. For many opponents, the Pembina project became a symbolic of larger concerns, including over-reliance on fossil fuels, contribution to global warming and fears about the transport of fuel by rail – fears stoked by high-profile disasters such as the one in Lac-Mégantic two years ago.

"I can't think of anything that generated this strong an opposition," said Mr. Sallinger. "Every single neighbourhood association came out against it. It was overwhelming opposition."

Eventually, that opposition made the project, in the eyes of Portland's mayor, untouchable. On May 6, Pembina and the Port of Portland received word that the city's most powerful politician was pulling his support for the project. The mayor's staff subsequently cited as reason for the change of heart some 3,200 calls and e-mails to his office about the project in recent weeks – of which only three were supportive.

"Here you have this pipeline project that, six months ago, was seen as just a simple economic development project, shipping one more thing through the Port of Portland," said Carl Abbott, an urban studies and planning professor at Portland State University. "Now it has gotten caught up in the fear of energy transportation and the cause of global warming and taking a stand against more fossil fuels.

"I think you could say the mayor was listening to the voice of the people, or you could say he was ducking for cover."

For its part, Pembina is still trying to push the project, hoping it can rally enough of Portland's municipal power-brokers to support a shipping terminal the company says will create up to 800 construction jobs and pump $12-million in taxes into the local economy every year. And although Pembina's opponents are not likely to agree, the company is also pushing the project on environmental grounds.

"You have people that claim they want to reduce fossil fuel use to zero – well, that's a large step," said Eric Dyck, Pembina's vice-president of of marine terminals."I think propane is recognized as a step in the right direction. It's a clean fuel."

But, buoyed by their political victories so far, the groups that oppose Pembina's project have little interest in letting up until the proposed shipping terminal is officially dead.

"Too often, it's portrayed as, if you don't support this or that project, then you don't care about jobs or you don't care about tax revenue," said Mr. Sallinger. "But I think that's a false argument, and I'm proud of Portland for being willing to stand up and say no."

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