Portland Could Become the First U.S. City to Phase Out Diesel Fuel Sales

Diesel is dirty, and there’s an alternative beyond electric trucks.

(aaron wessling)

On July 20, Andria Jacob of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability presented the City Council with a proposal to reduce Portland’s carbon emissions. Among her recommendations was an eye-catching proposition.

What’s the proposal?

As part of its Climate Emergency Workplan, the city of Portland proposes to phase out the sale of diesel derived from petroleum at all Portland fueling stations, replacing it with cleaner renewable diesel made from waste animal fats and vegetable oil.

Diesel is the fourth-largest source of carbon emissions in Portland, according to the workplan, and emits a grab bag of pollutants, including soot, that affect low-income communities of color more than wealthy areas farther from freeways and industry.

The proposal is a mini version of a proposed Oregon House bill that would eliminate the sale of petroleum diesel across the state in phases: the tri-county metro area by 2025, west of the Cascades by 2027, and east of the mountains by 2029.

Has any other city tried this?

Portland appears to be alone in proposing the phase-out of petroleum diesel fuel sales, but plenty of other cities are working to ban diesel vehicles (and gas-powered ones).

Last month, the European Union’s 27 members agreed on laws that would end the sale of new combustion-engine cars by 2035. California is doing the same thing, by the same date. Starting next year, the state will ban so-called drayage trucks—which visit railyards and ports—with engines made before 2010.

Who opposes it?

Fuel sellers, represented by the Oregon Fuels Association. Danelle Romain, their lobbyist, says the proposal came out of nowhere, and that none of her members was consulted.

“It was a total surprise,” she says.

The OFA has no problem with renewable diesel. “We’re interested in getting hands on as much green diesel as possible,” Romain says. “There’s just not enough. The issue is supply, not our level of interest. Mandating a ban means you’re going to have supply issues.”

Would it make any difference?

A ton, according to Keith Wilson, president and CEO at Titan Freight Systems. He’s been lobbying hard for the House bill, and he knows his stuff because Titan owns 47 trucks and 150 trailers.

Switching to renewable diesel cuts carbon emissions by 60% immediately, Wilson says. And unlike other climate actions, he says a statewide transition to renewable diesel would have immediate local benefits, independent of what, say, coal plants in China do.

Renewable diesel burns hotter and cleaner, and doesn’t generate black carbon, the sooty stuff that comes out of diesel exhaust. Black carbon settles on Oregon glaciers, speeding their melt and imperiling summer water supplies for farmers and ranchers, Wilson says.

Most diesel trucks in Oregon run along Interstate 5 and Highway 97. The two highways sandwich the Cascades, peppering them with black carbon, Wilson says.

Best of all, maybe, you can make renewable diesel out of timber slash, the limbs of trees discarded by the ton in Oregon every day. The technology is advancing, and Oregon could become the Texas of renewable diesel by converting forest waste to fuel.

If Portland acts alone, won’t truckers just buy diesel in Beaverton?

Wilson says no. Renewable diesel doesn’t gum up engines the way petro-diesel does, and it usually costs about the same per gallon.

By using renewable diesel, truckers can cut maintenance costs by a penny a mile, which is a lot when you have hundreds of trucks driving thousands of miles.

Instead of bypassing Portland, truckers will wait to buy fuel here, Wilson says. That’s what he does with his trucks. They fuel up on renewable diesel at his Southeast Portland depot. His fleet runs almost entirely on the stuff.

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