Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to George Wilson and Richard Rosenberry some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Tankers, barges and trains, Oh my!

Guest Opinion: The public and regulators need to take a closer look at Washington's growing fossil-fuel threats.
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

Vast amounts of crude oil, primarily from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, is being transported by rail throughout the United State and Canada. Eleven rail terminals are in various stages of completion in Washington state in anticipation of receiving this “shale on rail.”

The Vancouver Sun recently reported on 10 oil train accidents in Canada since May, including the tragic explosion resulting in 47 deaths outside Quebec in July. Despite this troubling record, the New York Times reported that Canada is poised to quadruple its rail terminal capacity over the next few years.

In the United States, the movement of crude oil by railroad has gone from 9,500 carloads five years ago to 234,000 carloads and is still increasing. Between 2005 and 2012 it has increased 443 percent.

Fortunately for the communities around Grays Harbor, the Shorelines Hearings Board has indicated it will deny the premature granting of a shoreline permit to Imperium and Westway Marine Terminals to build crude oil storage tanks for export. The Department of Ecology must first, among other things, analyze their ability to prevent and respond to an oil spill in the ecologically rich estuarine waters adjacent to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.

While Ecology deserves praise for conducting broad environmental reviews of the three coal terminals proposed for Cherry Point and the Columbia River, it has fallen far short in its review of the rail terminals proposed to handle the abundance of oil from North Dakota.

None of these proposals, including ones that are already in operation at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes and in Port Westward near Clatskanie, Ore., have been subject to an environmental impact statement (EIS), nor have they looked at the cumulative impacts on train and ship traffic if all the projects were to move forward. These projects would result in vessel traffic increases of at least 21 percent for Puget Sound, 153 percent for the Columbia River and 383 percent for Grays Harbor.

The refineries are receiving permits for their rail expansions without the benefit of EIS’s because Whatcom, Skagit and Pierce counties are issuing mitigated determinations of non-significance. Tyler Schroder of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said of BP’s rail terminal proposal, “It’s only one train a day.” The point of an EIS is to conduct a cumulative analysis of impacts, including reasonably foreseeable future activities. Such a study for any of the five refineries would need to acknowledge that if all the crude and coal proposals were to be approved, it would result in 35 additional loaded trains in Spokane alone.  Furthermore, BP’s refinery is located within a mile of the proposed Gateway Coal Terminal and adjacent to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, created to recover the genetically unique and dwindling herring stock found only there.

Some may wonder why we should be concerned about our refineries receiving crude by rail, thinking that supplying the refineries by rail is better than tankers when it comes to oil spills. While the accidents in Canada render that question less salient of late, it is important to recognize that there is nothing stopping refineries from also using their marine terminals to export crude without refining it. Loaded crude tankers are already departing from the Sound. 

There is also the massive expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain Pipeline that currently brings 300,000 barrels per day,  mostly of tar sand-derived crude oil, from Alberta to Vancouver British Columbia, with some processed at Washington refineries. Kinder Morgan intends to triple that capacity, resulting in an additional 348 tankers plying the core area of the critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whale community annually.

Tar sands are a particularly nasty crude source, requiring diluents to flow through pipelines. These components separate when exposed to air, causing a highly toxic vapor and the heavy oil tends to sink once the lighter elements evaporate. That is not to say Bakken Shale is “good oil”; though it is often referred to as “light-sweet” crude, that is a misnomer if ever there was one. This is only available for market due to fracking that releases all sorts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as well as introducing impurities to the oil that causes corrosion to pipelines, rail cars and tankers. The fact that it has relatively low sulfur is no reason for it to be touted as a “clean fuel” as the developers of the Imperium Terminal in Grays Harbor did at the Governor’s Climate Change forum recently.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Great OP-ED. As one who watches the daily tankers glide by daily to Cherry Pt, and sit's at the rail crossing waiting for ever longer freights to clear to reach I-5, I question the 'non-significant' stand of our local government.
I recently looked into Ecologies 'Plan' for oil spills in the Puget Sound, only to discover how ill prepared we are for anything close to a Valdez or Gulf event. Some of the measures actually foul our beaches, rather than clean them up, such as the movable booms to force oil ashore where supposedly an army of skimmer trucks will be waiting to collect it. An these trucks are stored where? Even worse, the mile long booms are repositioned with the changing tide, to insure maximum damage on both ebb and flow.
Keep writing and asking questions.

007

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

After reading Fred's OPED, one can only reach the conclusion that any transportation or refining of any fossil fuel is devastating our planet and must be stopped immediately! That is the true message he and other extremists like him are putting out there for public consumption. Thankfully, his perspective is not shared by common sense people who realize that life is a balance between having the energy that leads to a high standard of living and protecting our world from un necessary or damaging pollution. The battle is therefore one that is aimed at the masses, just trying to live their lives without too much hassle from anyone. The battle is to win their hearts and minds, thereby securing their support or opposition to something that is or may happen in their world. OPEDs like this are meant to present such a one sided viewpoint that it leaves the average, busy person with the impression that all of this is movement of fossil fuels is so bad that we have to take drastic measures immediately or all is lost. If they would only step back a bit and think logically about the issues, then they would conclude that we have largely struck the proper balance in these policy matters as evidenced by the success of our economy and having arguably the healthiest, cleanest environment in the world. Of course that will not satisfy the anti fossil fuel crowd ever, so they will continue to make up false claims and skewed data to confuse the masses who will scare politicians into making damaging policy decisions that end up hurting the masses in the end.

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

We live on a seacoast. We have a port, in fact several of them. Ports were once regarded as an economic resource. Now we have some other resources and we are pretty choosy about what goes through our ports... too much imported consumer goods? Well, no, what we want to regulate is offloading commodities that we are selling to the people who are manufacturing those same consumer goods. Things that we fervently desire and borrow money to buy. And that is because we have high environmental standards here in the land of Ports. Do we, here in Washington and Oregon drive our cars less than elsewhere in this fine country? I dunno but I suspect not. Do we vacation close to home and do we live in small, easy to heat, homes? Hmmm, I dunno about that either but we sure have high standards. We may not live up to them but we have high standards and we want other people to live up to them. That is a step in the right direction. I guess.

kieth

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your comments. Please note that I am neither anti port nor anti export. However, I am very pro Washington waters and deeply concerned about the fate of our future if we continue to allow corporations to extract filthy fuels from public lands at subsidized prices and export our climate obligations overseas. Just because someone can make a buck doing it does not mean we have to condone it. Furthermore, there are opportunity costs associated with congesting our rail ways with fossil fuels rather than agricultural products or passengers. Only extremists (or those poised to make a shortsighted buck) would be supporting the projects depicted in the infographic. If you have a specific question about the numbers I'd be happy to address them or come to the workshop.

Posted Thu, Nov 14, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

It is not an important issue but agricultural products are shipped almost exclusively by trucks. They use our Interstate Highways that were paid for by the taxpayers. Passenger rail? I think that is also not an issue. Moving passengers by rail is less efficient (energy and otherwise) than any other mode of transportation. I can save time and carbon emmissions by driving my car...alone. I agree with the author that profitiability should not be the linchpin of all economic decisions (I doubt if Steve Jobs was concentrating on getting rich) but, what is the alternative? should should the subject decision be made by public vote? I don't think that would be a good idea but, radical as it is, it is probably the only alternative to either letting the market decide (within legal limits) or having a determined minority alter or reverse investment decisions.

kieth

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your comments. Please note that I am neither anti port nor anti export. However, I am very pro Washington waters and deeply concerned about the fate of our future if we continue to allow corporations to extract filthy fuels from public lands at subsidized prices and export our climate obligations overseas. Just because someone can make a buck doing it does not mean we have to condone it. Furthermore, there are opportunity costs associated with congesting our rail ways with fossil fuels rather than agricultural products or passengers. Only extremists (or those poised to make a shortsighted buck) would be supporting the projects depicted in the infographic. If you have a specific question about the numbers I'd be happy to address them or come to the workshop.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »