Environmentalist groups stop construction of oil export terminal in Philadelphia, 2016


Fight Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ initiative of building an oil export facility as part of a larger “energy hub” in the region; halt the expansion of Philadelphia’s fossil fuel industry; push for local action on climate change by urging officials to reject projects that would promote the use of fossil fuels and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Time period

9 March, 2016 to 22 November, 2016


United States

Location City/State/Province

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jump to case narrative

Methods in 2nd segment

  • Published a letter on Philly.com titled "Join our protest against fossil fuels"
  • Delivered a letter to Chairman and members of the Board of the Port Authority, denouncing the oil company and demanding its proposal be dropped
  • Sunflower cutouts marked “Right to breathe”
  • Invited the Port Authority to a town hall meeting and lobbied against the potential fossil fuel industry expansion in Southport development process

Methods in 3rd segment

  • Sunflower cutouts marked “Right to breathe”
  • Environmentalists entered the Port Authority's Board meeting and delivered speeches and messages against fossil fuel industry expansion

Methods in 4th segment

  • Sunflower cutouts marked “Right to breathe”
  • 100 protesters carried yellow flags
  • 100 protesters briefly occupied the refinery’s driveway, blocking tanker drivers from going in and out

Methods in 6th segment

  • The Philadelphia Democratic Delegation to the state assembly, urging the policymakers to discontinue any fossil-fuel expansion project
  • Sunflower cutouts marked “Right to breathe”
  • Environmentalists entered the Port Authority's Board meeting and delivered speeches and messages against fossil fuel industry expansion

Segment Length

43 days


Green Justice Philly


Philly Thrive

External allies

Philadelphia Democratic Delegation


Philadelphia Energy Solutions
Philadelphia Regional Port Authority/Governor Wolf

Campaigner violence

No campaigner violence

Repressive Violence

No repressive violence





Group characterization

community members

Groups in 1st Segment

Green Justice Philly

Groups in 4th Segment

Philly Thrive
ACTION United (Exit)

Groups in 6th Segment

Philadelphia Democratic Delegation

Segment Length

43 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

6 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


1 out of 3 points

Total points

8 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Green Justice Philly successfully achieved its goal of preventing the expansion of fossil fuel industry in Philadelphia, while the organization stayed strong throughout the campaign. It, however, does not have much growth over the course of this campaign. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Green Justice Philly was already a huge environmentalist coalition group comprised of 20 community organizations by the time the campaign started.

Database Narrative

Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) is a private oil and gas manufacturer that owns the largest oil unloading and refining facility on the East Coast of the United States. Labelled by the Environmental Protection Agency as a high priority violator since April 2012, the PES has long been criticized by environmentalist groups for releasing air and water pollutants and failing to  comply with the Clean Air Act.

In January 2016, concerned community members from the waterfront area in Philadelphia, along with environmentalist coalition group Green Justice Philly, learned of a proposal by PES to build an oil import/export facility on a 195-acre plot of land in the Southport area of the Navy Yard that was being leased by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA). The PES was one of the six bidders that proposed to commercialize the empty land.

During a PRPA public information session in March of the same year, Green Justice Philly and community leaders voiced their concerns over the PES proposal. Members of the activist group highlighted the poor environmental track record of the PES’s refinery in South Philadelphia and its damage to residents’ health, while union leaders questioned the number of new jobs the proposal would create. Outside of the venue, protesters rallied against the expansion of the fossil fuel company, holding up signs such as “No more poison in Phila!” In response, the PRPA expressed its willingness to work with the community and hold companies “accountable for their environmental actions.”

On 7 May, Green Justice Philly and members of the public staged a demonstration in front of the PES’s refinery in South Philadelphia. Over 300 protesters held up 100 6-foot tall sunflower cutouts and marched with banners and signs marked “Right to Breathe.” Members of the nearby community spoke about how the poor air quality caused chronic health problems for the residents. The crowd also staged a sit-in, blocked a truck entrance, and covered the gates with sunflowers as a symbol of hope for a better and cleaner future.


Police officers were present during the protest, but they did not make any arrests. The police department released a statement later that day, confirming that the protesters demonstrated peacefully and caused no problems.

Following the protest on 7 May, Green Justice Philly invited the PRPA to a town hall meeting on 19 May. During this public session, the environmentalists submitted a letter to Chairman Gerard Sweeney and the members of the Board of the Port Authority, demanding an immediate disqualification of the PES as a proposer for Southport commercialization. The letter denounced the oil company as a “habitual environmental scofflaw” that presented a “persistent and clear danger” to the citizens and city of Philadelphia.

On 26 June, three dozen community members and environmentalists from Green Justice Philly gathered at the Port Authority building and staged a peaceful takeover of the Board meeting. Maxine McCleary, a longtime resident near the PES refinery, spoke out against the fossil fuel expansion plan. In an emotional speech, she testified for the health problems that the refinery had caused; she said that four of her nine siblings died from respiratory cancer while her 10-year-old son suffered asthma since he was born. Other protesters also reiterated the clear message that the city should not “have to sacrifice health for jobs,” citing several times when air quality alerts were issued consecutively. In response, Chairman Sweeney of the Port Authority restated the Board’s commitment to consider “community input” in the review process.

The effort against PES’s proposal of building an oil terminal in Southport continued on 26 July when ACTION United (a member of Green Justice Philly) organized a rally outside of the PES refinery in South Philadelphia Around 100 community activists were joined by members of Philly Thrive, an organization that opposes the creation of an “energy hub” in Philadelphia. Carrying yellow flags and banging drums, the protesters fixed sunflowers to the facility’s fence. They also briefly occupied the road and the refinery’s driveway, blocking tanker drivers from going in and out. This action angered several drivers and caused a traffic jam on the busy road. Though a confrontation occurred between some of the protesters and drivers, no one was hurt or arrested. Nearby police officers stood by and observed.

Another demonstration took place on 10 November, following a letter from the Philadelphia Democratic Delegation to the state assembly in October that urged the policymakers to discontinue any fossil-fuel expansion project. Environmentalist groups Food & Water Watch and Philly Thrive organized a picket in front of the Port Authority office with over 20 people attending the action. The protesters attempted to enter the building to deliver an over-sized, handwritten Post-It note to Chairman Sweeney, but were blocked by Don Brennan, the Director of Governmental and Public Affairs, due to “security concerns.” Brennan later delivered the note, which included messages such as “The climate can’t tolerate any more fossil fuels,” to Sweeney and said that the protesters’ perspective would be taken into account.

On 22 November, just weeks before the PRPA’s decision on choosing a company to develop the waterfront land, Green Justice Philly organized a second takeover of the PRPA Board meeting and persuade the authority to choose public health and good employment opportunities over profits that fossil fuel industry expansion would bring. This was the final effort by the environmentalist coalition to stop the PES from developing an oil terminal in Southport.

On the same day, Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf announced a $292-million-dollar investment plan for the Port of Philadelphia that included a traditional marine terminal with ship berths to handle containers and cargoes as well as to store imported automobiles. The plan aimed to double the capacity and maintain the competitiveness of the port while benefiting the automobile business in Southport and creating thousands of jobs. With this “non-energy use” development plan announced, the Port Authority cancelled its process to commercialize the land, citing that the proposals by private companies lacked “a comprehensive plan to grow the entire port.” PES subsequently dropped its proposal.


This campaign against the PES’s proposal to expand in Southport was inspired by an international wave of actions to “Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” particularly actions in Wales, the Philippines, and New Zealand. (1) This campaign was also one of the first U.S. protests in the “Break Free” movement; its success had since influenced other similar actions in the U.S., such as a demonstration against fracked oil trains in Albany, NY and a march for clean energy in Los Angles, CA. (2)


Ammerman, Patrick. 2016. “Philly Kicks Off Wave of Major Actions Against Fossil Fuels in USA.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160511125407/http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-ammerman/philly-kicks-off-wave-of_b_9892346.html).

Anon. 2016. “Green Justice Philly Asks PRPA to Disqualify PES.” Green Justice Philly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170226213604/http://greenjusticephilly.org/green-justice-philly-asks-prpa-to-disqualify-pes/).

Anon. n.d. “FACT SHEET: Philadelphia Energy Solutions Oil Refinery – PES.” Green Justice Philly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170210023217/http://greenjusticephilly.org/fact-sheet-philadelphia-energy-solutions-oil-refinery-pes/).

Anon. n.d. “Our Coalition.” Green Justice Philly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20161030065220/http://greenjusticephilly.org/our-coalition/).

Colaneri, Katie. 2016. “Environmentalists Target Port Proposals to Fight Philadelphia ‘Energy Hub’.” StateImpact. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160414123027/https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2016/03/10/environmentalists-target-port-proposals-to-fight-philadelphia-energy-hub/).

Hill, Teresa. 2016. “Letters: Join Our Protest Against Fossil Fuels.” Philly.com. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160508162101/http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20160505_Letters__Join_our_protest_against_fossil_fuels.html).

Hurdle, Jon. 2016. “Demonstrators Urge PES to Rethink Its Plans for Expansion at Southport.” StateImpact. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160727144029/https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2016/07/26/demonstrators-urge-pes-to-rethink-its-plans-for-expansion-at-southport/).

Hurdle, Jon. 2016. “Philly Climate Activists Criticize Plans for Oil Terminal.” StateImpact. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20161111151221/https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2016/11/10/philly-climate-activists-criticize-plans-for-oil-terminal/).

Johanson, Kristen. 2016. “Protest Held in South Philly Against Proposed Oil Refinery Expansion.” CBS Philly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160508113830/http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2016/05/07/protest-held-in-south-philly-against-proposed-oil-refinery-expansion/).

Lai, Jonathan. 2016. “Protesters Rally Against Proposed Navy Yard Oil Plan.” Philly.com. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160510124713/http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20160508_Protestors_rally_against_proposed_Navy_Yard_oil_facility.html).

Loyd, Linda. 2016. “Southport Refinery Expansion Proposal Draws Fire.” Philly.com. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20160622130543/http://www.philly.com/philly/business/energy/20160622_Southport_refinery_expansion_proposal_draws_fire.html).

Meenal. 2016. “Southport: A Battle for the Future of Philadelphia's Waterfront.” Green Justice Philly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170210023048/http://greenjusticephilly.org/2016/04/24/southport-a-battle-for-the-future-of-philadelphias-waterfront/).

Rubin, Sam. 2016. “Philly Activists Take on Fossil Fuel Giants - and Win.” Food & Water Watch. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170226213638/http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/impact/philly-activists-take-fossil-fuel-giants-%E2%80%94-and-win).

Saksa, Jim. 2016. “Gov. Wolf Announces $292 Million for Port of Philadelphia to Expand Container Capacity.” PlanPhilly. Retrieved February 5, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20161124154441/http://planphilly.com/articles/2016/11/22/gov-wolf-announces-292-million-for-port-of-philadelphia-to-expand-container-capacity).

Additional Notes

Formed in October 2015, Green Justice Philly is an environmentalist coalition group that include 350 Philly, Action United, Be the Change Philadelphia, Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, CCP Coalition for a Sustainable Future, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Farm to City, Fossil Free Drexel, EDGE Philly, Exact Solar, Food & Water Watch, Keystone Catholics, Maypop Collective, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Neighborhood Networks of Philadelphia, North of Washington Ave Coalition (NOWAC), Pennsylvania Federation BMWED-Teamsters, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, Philadelphia Chapter, Philly Electric Wheels, Protecting Our Waters, PSR-Philadelphia, and The Shalom Center.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Yin Xiao, 09/02/2017