Could BP turn Bellingham into a Northwest oil export capital?

The BP docks at Cherry Point Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The microphone worked only part of the time, and occasionally the gymnasium walls bounced the words like a volley of loose basketballs. Despite that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got an earful last week at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham in a meeting that echoed decades of Northwest environmental history and new fears about exports of coal and oil to Asia.

One by one, three minutes at a time, unhappy citizens dismantled the Corps’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the operation of the Northwest’s largest oil terminal.

The document examines the impact of the North Wing of the BP oil terminal at Cherry Point, the scenic seacoast on the Strait of Georgia between Ferndale and Blaine. Unlike most environmental reviews, the one that brought about the Wednesday discussion concerns a facility that's already in operation, in this case for more than a decade.

The North Wing is BP’s second dock for oil tankers; it’s used to ship out refined products, including two-thirds of the jet fuel used at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The second dock allows BP to use the first dock (or South Wing) solely for bringing crude oil ashore from tankers. Whether or not that increases the terminal’s capacity is, suddenly, a hotly debated question.

The North Wing was added in 2001 and is only now getting its first environmental eyeballing by the Corps.

Although the Corps has raised the possibility of ordering the destruction of the dock, the leading critic of BP operations there dismisses that idea. The review, however, could lead to stronger controls on operations.

As an ARCO port in its earlier iteration (BP bought ARCO in 2000), the Cherry Point terminal started taking oil from tankers crossing Puget Sound 43 years ago. It escaped formal impact study back then, because its construction began just ahead of the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.

The current study of the North Wing is a legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson. In 1977, Magnuson amended his Marine Mammal Protection Act to limit the capacity of the terminal to import crude oil through the Sound.

The amendment, its language allowing no excuse for misconstruction, prohibits any federal permit which “will or may” lead to an increase in “the volume of crude oil capable of being handled” at any dock in navigable Washington waters east of Port Angeles, beyond the facility's capacity on Oct. 18, 1977.

The amendment exempts oil meant to be refined for consumption in the state of Washington. (Filings by the oil company indicate that about one-quarter of the products refined at BP Cherry Point meet that exemption).

At the time, Magnuson, a six-term Democrat who worried about oil spills in Puget Sound, was heading off proposals for a Cherry Point super-port, designed to handle unheard-of quantities of Alaskan crude from the state's booming North Slope. Remarkably, in the light of today’s Capitol Hill paralysis, his amendment sped through both houses of Congress in the course of a day. Republicans from the Washington delegation ran interference within their own caucus to help Magnuson. 

In 1996, the Corps approved a permit for the ARCO North Wing addition, without benefit of an environmental impact statement. At the time, Corps officials agreed with ARCO that oil tankers are safer when they’re berthed and unloading than when they’re anchored elsewhere and waiting a turn at the dock. Making the process more efficient also makes it safer, the officials decided. Therefore, no environmental impact and no need for an EIS.

Except — there was that pesky Magnuson Amendment. Environmental critics of the ARCO port reasoned that the use of the North Wing to send off refined products freed up the South Wing to take in more crude oil. Thereby increasing the volume of crude oil capable of being handled. Thereby violating the Magnuson Amendment.

A coalition of citizens' groups and individuals, led by Fred Felleman of Ocean Advocates, went to federal court in 2000, demanding that the Corps complete an Environmental Impact Statement on the North Wing permit, with attention to the Magnuson Amendment. 

They lost in U.S. District Court in Seattle, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually reversed the lower court and sent the case back to Seattle. The District Court then imposed a settlement that requires an EIS, adherence to the Magnuson amendment, a vessel traffic risk study, and specific safety procedures. 

Thus, the passionate crowd at Shuksan Middle School the other night — 13 years after BP started using the North Wing — demanding that the agency not allow BP to increase its volume at Cherry Point.

“This is BP, who gave us the worst oil disaster in history in the Gulf,” Bob Burr of Bellingham reminded the hearing. “This is a coupling of BP and the Corps of Engineers, whose work led to the drowning of New Orleans.

Felleman, now Northwest consultant for Friends of Earth, told the Corps and its audience that BP has been operating its Cherry Point terminal illegally, above the Magnuson limits set in 1977.

“BP has been exerting their political clout to delay this process for eight years [and] this has afforded them unfettered access to a dock they built illegally,” he said. Felleman has said the opponents have never called for the dock's removal, but he wants limits on the number of shipments and greater control on operations during poor weather.

The primary way to measure dock activity, according to the Corps, is the number of times tankers call at an oil terminal in a given period of time. Felleman produced documents showing an increase in that number, from a capacity of 138 tankers per year with one dock, to a theoretical capacity of as many as 315 dockings with both docks in operation. 

Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, told Crosscut that counting ships is not the way to measure volume. Rather, he said, it’s the barrels of oil passing through the plant that define capacity. Dean maintains that there has been no volume increase since 2001, the year the new dock went into operation, and therefore no violation.

But Felleman rather gleefully cites the Ninth Circuit Court’s language: “If the alterations to the terminal authorized by the permit increased the potential berthing capacity for purposes of unloading crude oil, then the permit violated the Magnuson Amendment.”

Concurrent with the Cherry Point import fuss, there’s a growing effort in Congress — bankrolled by the American Petroleum Institute — to lift a 40-year-old ban on the export of United States domestic crude oil. Lifting the export ban would, in theory, allow West Coast terminals to reverse their conventional operations and begin sending oil to Asia. Some of Wednesday night’s commenters picked up on that, voicing the suspicion that BP could re-rig its Cherry Point terminal so it could go both ways — import or export — whichever offered the greater margins at the time.

“It's one of the worst things that could happen,” Barry Wenger told the hearing. He’s a retired state Department of Ecology official and president of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Bellingham non-profit that organized early opposition to a coal port proposed for a site about a mile from BP’s oil docks.

Wenger says oil exports would not only create more seaborne tanker traffic in the state’s most sensitive coastal waters, but also increase the frequency of oil trains hauling Bakken crude from the Dakotas through the Northwest, in tank cars that have raised considerable safety concerns. BNSF has launched a major effort to replace aging cars with new models regarded as much safer.

Oil from Canadian tar sands, already exempted from the ban on exports of U.S. oil, would be an especially dangerous seaborne export, Wenger warned.

“The tar sands material is so heavy it has to be diluted with lighter (and toxic) chemicals, to get it through a pipe and onto a ship. In a spill, the lighter fraction will contaminate the sea with neurotoxins and carcinogens, then evaporate," he said. "The bitumen itself, the heavy stuff, will sink to the bottom and hang around, killing fish for 90 to 150 years.”

None of the worries about increased shipping traffic is justified, according to BP spokesman Scott Dean.

“The crude we receive via rail comes from non-BP sources in the Bakken,” Dean told Crosscut, referring to North Dakota's Bakken oil fields. “We buy it for use at the refinery because it is more cost-effective than the crudes currently available via tanker.”

The Corps will take more oral comments on the document in Seattle on July 24 at 4735 East Marginal Way, starting at 7 pm. That’s a federal building and you’ll need a photo identification to get in. The Corps is accepting written comments on its EIS until Aug. 6. 

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