BP's record shows Northwest waters need greater protection

BP has much more of a record and presence in the Northwest than many realize. How and where could BP's troubled oil drilling practices affect Washington citizens, their environment, Puget Sound, and the Salish Sea?
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An orca off Cherry Point

BP has much more of a record and presence in the Northwest than many realize. How and where could BP's troubled oil drilling practices affect Washington citizens, their environment, Puget Sound, and the Salish Sea?

It became official about 100 days after the sinking of the Horizon drilling rig: BP, the oil company that proclaimed itself to be "beyond petroleum," is responsible for the world's largest oil spill. On top of the 210 million gallon spill, BP added another 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants to the water column and an untold volume of drilling muds that have leaked out.

What might the oil company's record-setting ways mean for Washington state, where BP has large interests? The oil giant's record in the Gulf of Mexico, its eagerness to move past questions about its record there, and its own record in the Northwest suggest unsettling potential for problems here.

No sooner was the gusher temporarily capped then BP's new U.S. CEO called for the cleanup to "scale back," according to The Seattle Times, and our federal agencies have already concluded that most of the oil is gone. While relieved the well has been capped, there's little comfort in knowing that even under these optimistic projections at least five Exxon Valdez's worth of oil have yet to be accounted for. This unprecedented catastrophe has put the ecological and economic viability of the Gulf of Mexico on the line. BP's failure to contain the spill and unprecedented application of dispersants, creating subsurface toxic plumes of unknown dimensions, leaves much uncertainty as to when the Gulf will, to paraphrase former BP's head, get its life back.

And BP's history of only fixing things once they break — failing to stockpile adequate response equipment nearby the nation'ꀙs "oil patch" — has put all U.S. waters, including those in the Pacific Northwest, at risk as booms, skimmers, and dispersants have been diverted to the Gulf. Before the press and public forget BP'ꀙs slow, inadequate, and misleading response in the Gulf, there is a need for more local attention to BP's operations in Washington.

Despite comprehensive coverage of the Gulf spill, The Seattle Times ran only a small AP story in May reviewing 13 serious safety violations found last November by the state Department of Labor and Industries during an inspection of BP'ꀙs Cherry Point Refinery near Bellingham. Cherry Point is the only non-union refinery BP runs nationally as revealed in the review of their operations following a fatal explosion in Texas and a spill on the North Slope.

It was encouraging to finally see a local story in the Stranger looking into BP's funding of Tim Eyman's latest anti-tax initiative (I-1053) along with the three other major refineries in the state, who also opposed last year's legislative efforts to fund storm water solutions. Unfortunately, the reporter apparently did not even realize BP has a refinery in Washington, much less the largest by 9.5 million gallons per day.

Most people probably don't realize BP is also the majority interest in the Olympic Pipeline, which carries gasoline between Washington and Oregon (a state with no refineries) and a tank farm on Seattle's Harbor Island. BP is also the largest oil interest in the Gulf and the Alaskan North Slope, as well as a growing presence in the Canadian tar sands. The exploitation of the particularly polluting Alberta oil fields, which are connected by pipeline to refineries in Vancouver and Cherry Point, has resulted in an increase from 34 to 107 tankers going through the San Juan Islands from BP's Westridge facility in British Columbia over the last three years.

While it may appear more intriguing to report on BP'ꀙs origins as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or their role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber, their unappreciated local presence in Washington underscores the need for in-depth review of our local exposure to their operations and corporate culture, such as:

  • A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision in 2000 permitted BP to build a new tanker dock at their Cherry Point refinery adjacent to the state's once largest and genetically unique herring spawning beds without conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) or considering the implications of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson's 1977 restrictions on refinery dock expansions. Encircling all tankers with oil spill boom prior to oil transfers was cited as a primary reason an EIS was not needed for the project without consideration of the additional dock's facilitation of increased tanker traffic.
  • BP removed the mooring system needed to place oil-spill booms around their tankers shortly after constructing the dock. Tragically, a diver was killed during the mooring system's reinstallation, required under a lawsuit filed by Ocean Advocates, ReSources, North Cascades Audubon, and Bellingham commercial fisherman Dan Crawford calling for an EIS on the new dock. Consistent with BP's history and lobbying efforts, the state Department of Ecology found in 2009 BP sought exemptions from a prebooming requirement more than all but one other facility in Washington.
  • Since losing the lawsuit over the dock, BP has lobbied Congress to introduce bills in the House and Senate attempting to strip Magnuson'ꀙs oil-spill protections from the law. The late Sen. Ted Stevens used this issue to try to retaliate against Senator Maria Cantwell'ꀙs opposition to opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling.
  • As a result of the dock expansion lawsuit, BP spent over $1 million contracting Dr. Jack Harrald of George Washington University to conduct a state of the art vessel traffic risk assessment for Puget Sound. It evaluated the oil spill risks of increased tanker traffic that required modeling all the vessel traffic bound to Washington and British Columbia. Despite the value of this study completed in July 2008 to address risk-reduction efforts, the Corps has yet to release it because BP has been unhappy with its conclusions.
  • BP provided the only public testimony to successfully pressure NOAA into taking a position against a petition to list the genetically unique Cherry Point herring under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Until recently, BP has championed efforts to prevent the state Department of Natural Resources from completing the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve management plan. Despite the fact the reserve was created over 10 years ago, DNR just released the draft plan this past month.
  • BP's environmental policy representative at the Cherry Point refinery serves on the Whatcom County Marine Resource Committee (MRC) and the NW Straits Commission which oversees all the MRCs. Coincidentally or not, the Whatcom MRC has chosen not to take a position on DNR's management plan for the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve despite what would seem to be the reserve's obvious relevance to the committee.
  • BP got to serve as the only fuel-industry representative on the 26-person advisory board created by legislation this year to revise our state'ꀙs energy strategy.

Despite the national outrage over the response in the Gulf, the oil industry'ꀙs ongoing influence prevented Congress from passing oil spill or energy legislation prior to the August recess. One thing is for certain: Whatever level of new offshore oil and gas development proceeds nationally, there will be oil spills, as recent events in Michigan and China attest.

This is especially true in Washington, one of the most trade-dependent states in the nation, where ships are the primary vehicles of trade. While we have been fortunate to be spared a recent catastrophic spill, our existing response system is clearly not up to the task.

It is time that we equip and train our local fishing fleets with oil booms designed for the North Sea oil fields, which are far better than what we currently have. A combination of quick containment with appropriate gear for our diverse waterways and strategically stationed skimmers and barges are key to a competent response. The Makah Tribe is leading the way in demonstrating the value of such systems, especially in remote and vulnerable locations like Neah Bay. In addition, it is critical that the federal Coast Guard reauthorization bill be passed this year, with a provision requiring an updated comparison of how such essential maritime safety provisions as tug escorts, rescue towing, and spill response requirements vary across the border with Canada.

It is time we stop listening to BP's PR and instead look at its track record. There must be less arrogance and more diligence. We now have the perfect opportunity to act created by BP'ꀙs flagrant failures in the Gulf, President Obama's call for a national ocean policy, and the state effort to restore Puget Sound by 2020. This is our chance to assure that we get better equipment back than we sent to the Gulf and train local fishers in their use. Then we must require the industry to "drill, baby, drill" in oil spill-response exercises.

As we continue to advance prevention efforts such as the Neah Bay tug, strengthen bilateral agreements with Canada, and ultimately develop a national energy policy that weans us off fossil fuels, let's hope this state will never have to respond to another major spill in Washington.


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