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Coal and oil: A mix to fuel NW fears

The Obama administration's position is a mystery for those worried about Washington state becoming an energy pipeline to Asia.
Oil trains move through new rail trackage at Everett. The four tracks were built last summer.

Oil trains move through new rail trackage at Everett. The four tracks were built last summer. Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy

The masses that stormed the gates of Big Coal in 2013 are turning their fury on Big Oil as the new year opens and the Pacific Northwest considers a future as a massive pipeline on rails connecting the fossil-fuel deposits of Wyoming and North Dakota to the furnaces and factories of Asia.

Tens of thousands of regional citizens testified at public meetings, wrote letters and Internet posts and signed petitions indicating a deep concern over two large coal-export terminals.

Their concerns and testimony on coal — which, similarly to the oil, would trek from Wyoming and Montana to Northwest ports — will largely go behind closed doors in 2014. Sweeping Environmental Impact Statements are being prepared for Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham and Millennium Bulk Terminals at Longview. County, state and federal agencies probably won’t unveil the results until at least 2015.

It is taking an unusually long time to begin the actual EIS for Gateway; officials at SSA Marine, the terminal developer and BNSF Railway have yet to sign agreements with the agencies involved. The companies have already paid $1.8 million just to get to this point; the new contracts could add as much as $8 million to their bill. Parties expect signatures in February. Millennium is months behind; a scope of study has yet to be determined.

The size and complexity of the Bellingham project is blamed for the contract delay; upper management must approve the contracts. Applicants have registered concerns about some process and staffing issues, but the “back and forth” between the applicants and agencies has not touched the scope of the EIS as announced last July, said Alice Kelly, the Department of Ecology lead for Gateway.There is increasing concern among activists that project developers are using to delay to pressure county officials for a less sweeping environmental study.

The attention of citizen activists, energy and export companies and politicians turns to oil trains in 2014 — it began with exploding oil tanker cars and the initiation of efforts to lift the ban on exporting American crude.

Sparks will fly as the Pacific Northwest wakes up to the fact that Big Oil has joined Big Coal to become Big Energy with the addition of trains carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to ports in Washington and Oregon. A few are already running and more are proposed.

Oil trains scare people who live anywhere near the tracks. The most recent crash — in North Dakota — brought flames and smoke, but no injuries. A July explosion in Lac-Magentic, Quebec, killed 47 people. Other crashes have led to evacuations, but not hospitalizations. The problem, oil executives say, is a lack of pipelines to ship crude. TransCanada, which would build the Keystone pipeline, said this month that it will look to rail instead.


Railroad cars carrying crude oil and coal meet at the Port of Everett. Paul K. Anderson.

Critics of oil trains are raising concerns about the whole operation, and the year will bring additional pushback on a Port of Vancouver (Wash.) agreement with Tesoro/Savage to bring up to 10 full and empty oil trains a day to the city. Even before the North Dakota accident, the City of Vancouver called for a rigorous safety review and took its concerns to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC). A legislative committee is considering requiring BNSF to reveal closely guarded data on oil trains moving through the state; the railroad objects and bill’s fate is uncertain.

Opponents of oil trains are asking Whatcom and Skagit county officials to withdraw actions they have taken to allow shipment of crude via train to terminals at Cherry Point and Anacortes. Two refineries, BP and Tesoro, are already receiving oil via train. The counties issued “determinations of nonsignificance,” stating essentially that the shipments are not important enough to launch environmental reviews. The four groups sent a letter to Whatcom Executive Jack Louws on Jan. 22 and plan a similar letter to Skagit County. Louws said Monday he is working on a response to the groups.

While EFSEC and Gov. Jay Inslee have the power to deny the Vancouver terminal, at least eight daily full and empty oil trains are certain if existing oil refineries move ahead with plans to export crude oil, according to a Sightline Institute review. Some are already on the tracks.

Although public activism will focus on the safety of oil trains, a serious challenge to the region’s infrastructure is further deepened if oil trains are added to proposed Pacific Northwest coal trains. Up to 38 coal trains a day could be added by new shipment proposals. New trains from both sources could swamp the capacity of rail lines in such key choke points as the Columbia River Gorge, Spokane and Pasco, and Skagit and Whatcom counties.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 10:09 a.m. Inappropriate

The letter to Whatcom County can be linked at http://protectwhatcom.org/terminal-proposals-2/ by scrolling down to BP and Phillips 66.

TJW

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this extensive article on coal and oil exports. This is timely. The report by Sightline that is referenced in the article provides even more information. Major problem is that Warren Buffet's little train system, BNSF, has little legal responsibility to pay for the significant infrastructure upgrades that will be demanded for communities across the west and in the proposed port communities including downtown Seattle. As noted, it is the aggregate impact of these many proposed and existing facilities that could radically transform the West Coast states and communities. Bill Mitchell

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a very complicated and volatile situation, so McKay's ongoing yeoman efforts to survey the field are deserving of praise. A few irreverent observations:

-- The likelihood that on their own Obama and the national Democrats will muster the courage to impede the oil/gas/coal energy juggernaut's west coast export facility program in any meaningful way seems slight, unless the regional issues can be linked into the national picture. With the breadth of opposition now developing to Keystone, that possibility surely exists. The ever-timid Obama and Congressional Democrats need to be made more terrified of enraged environmentalists than they are of enraged Republicans. That hasn't happened yet, but it could.

-- Washington remains an environmentalist stronghold, western Washington especially so. Ergo, the local political functionaries (except perhaps in the southwest corner of the state) are unlikely to buy into the export facility scenario without reservations. Plus any local shoreline permits will be appealable to the state Shoreline Hearings Board, which should assure consideration of the broader public interest. Inslee, having caved in to the corporate agenda on Boeing, will be under political pressure to stand firm on the environmental front. Parenthetically, I continue to believe that at some point the export companies may abandon the more controversial Puget Sound routes and coalesce (excuse the pun) around a shared regional facility on the Columbia River.

-- The slowdown in the EIS generation process is most likely a product of currently depressed international coal prices. Coal only makes sense as a short-term high-profit play. Those profits no longer seem assured. Further down the road coal will either be phased out by a carbon tax or effective environmental controls, will lose profitability due to costly procedures required to make it less toxic, or the international trade regime will collapse under the weight of destabilizing worldwide environmental chaos. Those are the basic choices. One notes that the Chinese Communist oligarchy itself is finally beginning to wake up to the domestic environmental costs of unconstrained economic growth, another factor that could quickly undercut coal demand.

The fair state of Washington has had a vivid historical experience of a boom-and-bust economy based on rampant resource exploitation. The big trees are now gone, as is large-scale commercial fishing. So now here comes Big Energy with its last-hurrah party. And we too are invited to guzzle at the trough! Does anyone doubt how this affair turns out? We have reached the point where aspirin will no longer be enough cure the morning-after hangover.

woofer

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 5:21 p.m. Inappropriate

T-18 months til something derails, explodes, spills, or all 3. In today's regulatory and economic climate, it is just inevitable. Ask Alberta, Quebec, North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc.

nullbull

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