Coming soon: Oil trains. All the risk, fewer regulations

The push for more oil trains sparks debate - and fears - about the safest way to move crude.
An oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

An oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett.

Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett. Credit: Paul K. Anderson

The Pacific Northwest Energy Boom rolled into Vancouver, Wash., in a big way Tuesday, sparking more debate about how the region can handle demands from oil and coal companies for export terminals shipping to markets in the U.S. and Asia.

Port commissioners in Vancouver unanimously endorsed a huge oil terminal that would bring up to 360,000 barrels a day from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota, by rail, to the Columbia River port. That decision would add eight long unit, or mile-and-a-half-long trains daily to the already heavy traffic through the scenic Columbia River Gorge. Gorge protectors protested. (The extra rail traffic would include both full and empty return trains.)

American crude oil is prohibited from export except to Canada and pressure is already building on Congress to repeal the export ban. The vast Bakken Field is producing more oil than pipelines to American markets can handle. Trains are already running to at least two Pacific Northwest terminals. Neither is on the scale of the Vancouver terminal, which would be operated by Tesoro.

Energy-export schemes are literally piling up on the desks of area agencies, as companies rush to extract resources from sparsely populated North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana and find West Coast ports where agencies and the public will accept the cargo and the mile-and-a-half-long trains that deliver it.

If all the proposals now on the wish lists of the big coal and oil companies were to be approved, they would add about 60 unit trains a day to traffic in the Gorge. Twenty of them would be hauling oil. Sections of the Gorge have been identified by the State Department of Transportation as already near capacity. (You can see an extensive charting of the rail impacts by Sightline Institute here.)

The train traffic, including proposed coal-export terminals at Longview and Cherry Point near Bellingham, would make up 34 daily trains at capacity. Another big rail demand — a proposed bottled-water plant at Anacortes — would add as many as eight additional trains a day to the already stressed rail network.

“Unprecedented” is a word easily abused, but the region has never seen a boom like this. It threatens to overrun governmental agencies responsible for permits on many of the projects, not to mention the rail-corridor communities.

Already, county, state and federal agencies have spent nearly three years dealing with a proposal for the region’s largest coal-export terminal, Gateway Pacific near Bellingham. Thousands of citizens have testified at public hearings. Mountains of studies and applications await experts who will spend perhaps two years preparing an environmental impact report for decision-makers. A similar process life span is expected for the Millennium Bulk Terminals project at Longview. A much smaller export scheme, whioch would take Powder River Basin coal by rail to Oregon’s Port of Morrow and transfer it to Columbia River barges that would be unloaded downstream at St. Helens, also faces an uncertain future.

Oil exports from the Columbia River are already happening, from an unused ethanol plant near Clatskanie. Global Partners, a Massachusetts firm, is accepting a trainload Bakken crude every other day and loading it onto barges for West Coast refineries. The Longview Daily News reports about 50 workers at the site. The Vancouver oil terminal would employ about 120 workers.

North Dakota’s lucrative oil fields were opened up in the last decade thanks to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a controversial technique that involves injecting a mix of water and sand into the oil seams to open them for extraction. Trains, a railroading journal, predicted two years ago that railroads would be among the winners in the “next Powder River Basin” rush, because pipelines simply wouldn't be able to handle the volume ready for extraction. Trains journal was right and BNSF, the railroad serving most of Washington, is the biggest winner. But to maximize its profits, it needs West Coast terminals that can handle oil as well as coal.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 7:16 a.m. Inappropriate

We'll have see I-5 full of cars with empty tanks first before this gets serious thought from Inslee.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I attended the Port of Vancouver meeting where the vast majority of citizens testified against the oil terminal lease. It was an overflow crowd that could not be accommodated in the hearing room.

As usual in this neck of the Washington woods, the elected officials, in this case the Port of Vancouver commissioners, chose not to listen to the well-articulated concerns of the majority.

Snagging this lucrative lease and 120 jobs took precedence over safety concerns.

Glad to see Crosscut cover some of the SW WA news and the "big picture" impacts to our entire state.

gaia

Posted Fri, Jul 26, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

And which set of elected officials (anywhere) do you feel listen to well-articulated concerns of the majority?

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article.

mbrenman

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

"As usual in this neck of the Washington woods, the elected officials, in this case the Port of Vancouver commissioners, chose not to listen to the well-articulated concerns of the majority."

The "majority" of who? A few hundred people who showed up at some dog-and-pony show public hearing? lol If you really want to know what a majority of voters want, then put it to a public vote. These public hearings are nothing but a farce.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Jul 26, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree 110%.

I am quite tired of hearing how 'expensive' it is to put things to a vote. Far more expensive not to do so.

Posted Sat, Jul 27, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

In Clark County, voter turnout doesn't break 50% in odd year general elections, and has trouble breaking 30% in primaries. If you're going to put anything to "a public vote" that has close to any legitimacy, you've got one chance in even years only.

louploup

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Obviously, we need to build more pipelines.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Obviously, we need to reduce production at the source if the usage is down. And, usage of fossil fuels is dropping in the US. It's basic market economics. YOUR business does not get the right to abuse others just because you are now overproducing.

And, China should mine their own coal and find their own oil. Or, reduce their use of fossil fuels like the rest of the world.

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 5:11 p.m. Inappropriate

China should build their own damned airplanes too!

kieth

Posted Fri, Jul 26, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Would you fly in one? Just curious.

Posted Sat, Jul 27, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

How happy are you on a Boeing 787, wondering which battery or pinched wire is going to set the thing on fire?

louploup

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

What are the "fewer regulations" proclaimed in the headline? Read the article and found no mention of any regulatory rollbacks.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Jul 25, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

I wrote above: "Some of the oil terminals — the existing five refineries — face only limited public review." Refineries long ago went through review, in some cases before there was a very strict process. Because they are not new facilities, they face only perfunctory requirements to switch their crude intake from Alaska oil to Bakken oil, despite the change in transportation mode from ship to rail. The plant at St. Helens seems to have faced little or no review as it shifts from an ethanol plant to a crude-oil transfer point. Since all of the coal terminals in the region are new, all will face varying degrees of review, the most rigid will take place at the two Washington proposed terminals at Cherry Point and Longview.

Posted Fri, Jul 26, 10:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Always excellent. Thank you Mr. McKay

Posted Sat, Jul 27, 6:12 p.m. Inappropriate

So, let's see, at least ten oil terminals existing or planned in Washington State. Then coal terminals as well. The State Government is taking no measures to stop this. Washington State would be a major handler, and exporter, of crude oil, and coal.

State Government needs to shut up about Washington State taking carbon reduction measures, while at the same time allowing Washington State to become the West Coast nexus for crude oil and coal.

Washington State is being treated as a location, not a State, by the oil/coal industry, the railroad, the financial backers (see Goldman-Sachs), foreign coal mining corporations, wealthy business interests, and foreign nations. Washington State Citizens are being completely disregarded, or treated as "the indigenous population" of little matter.

Washington State should not allow itself to become the Texas Gulf Coast, or the Nigerian Delta; but it seems Inslee, and the rest of State Government are in the pocket of the corporations involved. If I hear Inslee (or any State politician, State employee, or group) say another word about carbon emissions, and global warming, while being the purveyor of carbon emissions, and global warming, I think my head will explode like an out of control oil train.

jhande

Posted Sat, Jul 27, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

While we are on the subject of oil/hydrocarbons; I found an interesting article about fracking. It seems the fracking debate diverts from an even worse practice; "Insight: California Environmentalist Fear Frack Fight a Distraction" by Rory Carroll and Braden Reddall on 28 May 2013 at Reuters. This is about what are called "Acid Jobs" to extract oil/gas.

And, there is; "The Alberta Oil Sands Have Been Leaking For 9 Weeks" by Thomas Stackpole on 23 Jul 2013 at Mother Jones. They believe it is what they call an "underground blowout". Here are quotes from the article; "Everybody [at the company and in government]is freaking out about this"; "We don't understand how this happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking...". Those quotes are from a Canadian Government scientist.

Washington State does not need to enable this mess.

jhande

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 10:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I was gratified to read the following piece in the news today. Though we, here in the NW, enjoy our news fully filtered and homogenized, there is still an actual world out there. Forces of change and nature continue to move and swirl around our little backwater, while we demand our news and (activists) to be dumbed down to the discourse of a drunken European nobility at a long and lofty dinner party.

http://news.sky.com/story/1121610/saudi-prince-fracking-is-threat-to-kingdom

Jamesa

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

According to The Columbian today (7/312013), the Port of Vancouver commissioners apparently violated public meeting laws with the 7/22/2013 meeting about the Tesoro oil lease.

Not surprising, given Clark County politicians. Process and procedure be damned. That's what gave Don Benton his crony job as Environmental Director at the county.

Stay tuned. I predict someone will file a suit over this violation.

gaia

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