Vancouver oil train protestors: Don't let Northwest become the next Keystone

Kayaks, longshoremen and rappelling activists staged a major protest on the Columbia River last weekend.
Kayaks, longshoremen and rappelling activists staged a major protest on the Columbia River last weekend.

Days after a lease was approved for the largest crude oil terminal in the Northwest, the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River became a hot spot to stop it. “Summer Heat Climate Action,” a project of and local organizations, is committed to keep fossil fuels in the ground and out of the export and domestic markets.

If the Tesoro/ Savage Services terminal goes through, the Port of Vancouver would become the largest oil-by-rail hub in the region. As Sightline Institute reports, 11 refineries and terminals in Washington and Oregon are "planning, building or already operating oil-by-rail shipments." Three are already in place, including a Tesoro/Shell project in Anacortes, a Phillips66/ U.S. Oil project in Tacoma and a U.S. Development/ Westward/ Imperium project in Gray’s Harbor. If all are built, the amount of crude piped by rail into the Northwest would be on par with the Keystone XL pipeline — more than 800,000 barrels a day, according to Sightline's report, "The Northwest's Pipelines on Rails."

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Similar to climate actions against Keystone XL, organizers say that the Columbia River action was held to "draw the line" against the Northwest becoming a fossil fuel corridor for tar sands, coal and — the most recent proposal — crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Three hundred and eighty thousand barrels a day will be shipped from the new Port of Vancouver terminal on trains as long as a hundred cars. It will take as many as ten trains per day to handle the job.

On Saturday, more than 800 marchers — including longshoremen from the ILWU — formed a human chain across the I-5 Bridge that spans the 3,500 feet in length over the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.

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“No gas, no coal, no compromise," they chanted. "No oil trains in our lives.” Several wore HazMat containment suits as a reminder of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec train disaster that killed 50 people and incinerated a large portion of the town in early July.

”The suit says greenwash containment on the back to contain the lies that keep being perpetrated in our communities,” explains Tripp Jenkins, an organizer with Portland Rising Tide.

Kayakers were also a part of the action, forming a symbolic line of kayak pods on the Columbia River.

Three activists rappelled over the 258-foot-high bridge to hang a banner with the words “None Shall Pass.” No one was arrested.

“Tesoro Savage people said the cars were not explosive about two weeks before that, which has been proven to be untrue," says ILWU Local 7's Jared Smith. "These explosive cars will come by the same areas where we work and I live in this community, have for ten years, I don’t want that.” 

Port of Vancouver commissioners who approved the terminal said safety and environmental protocols would be dealt with before the terminal begins operating.

Paul Sansone, a clean energy advocate and founder of several clean energy companies, was also a part of the climate action. "After Quebec, it was discovered that oil from the Bakken oil fields is highly flammable," he says. “And we’re putting it across railroads that were designed to carry grain. For God’s sake, these are not rolling pipelines. We need to slow down, look at what’s happening and protect ourselves.”

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Of the nearly dozen refineries and port terminals in Washington and Oregon being planned or built, three are already up and running. "If the Port of Vancouver terminal is built, it would be as large as all of them combined," says Dan Serres, Conservation Director with the Columbia Riverkeeper. The driving force behind the push for big terminals on the Columbia and elsewhere in the region, he says, is a boom in fracking of shale oil in North Dakota and the center of the continental U.S.

“We’re being viewed as the shortest path to get that crude oil out of the ground and to markets where it can either be refined or shipped overseas,” he explains. The Columbia Riverkeeper is concerned that all the coal, gas and oil projects underway or proposed will find their way out of the global market and “uncork” the West Coast as a shipping hub for these petroleum products. That in turn, he adds, will incentivize further fracking and the development of coal from Montana’s Powder River Basin and tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

Crosscut archive image.Why industry chose the Port of Vancouver is a question everyone should be asking, says Sightline's Eric de Place, author of “Northwest’s Pipelines on Rails”. There’s no refinery anywhere near Vancouver, Washington. “You have to wonder if this project is really just a stalking horse for large scale exports of U.S. crude oil or perhaps even Canadian crude oil. If that’s the case, then we’re looking at a potentially huge increase in oil volumes traveling through the Northwest.”

The region has taken crude from Alaska and Canada for decades and refined it for local consumption, says de Place. But the huge volumes of oil being extracted from the Bakken Oil fields took even industry by surprise. "And because there’s no hard pipeline infrastructure in place to move that oil to market, the railroad companies have jumped in as fast as they can.” The first loaded train arrived in September at Anacortes Tesoro Refinery. “So it’s really a very short plan of time between then and now that we’ve seen this explosion of proposals to move oil by rail.”

The push-back to stop the region from becoming a fossil fuel choke point is both a blessing and curse, says Serres. “If we’re successful, if the people of the Northwest stand up to protect our coastline and our river from these dirty fossil fuel projects, we can make a real impact on how much carbon dioxide gets spewed into the atmosphere. We can do our part in dealing with the climate crisis by not allowing the Columbia River to become this fossil fuel chute.”

Before the crude oil terminal is fully approved, it will go through an 18-month permit review process, which includes safety reviews by the Washington Energy Facility Evaluation Council. The Columbia Riverkeeper, Portland Rising Tide and others plan to ask for open and rigorous hearings and an evaluation of all of the impacts. Ultimately, they hope to convince Governor Inslee to reject the proposal.

All photos courtesy of Leia Minch.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.