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.
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Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett.

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

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.

A recently completed infographic is designed to help the public and regulators envision what this state would look like if we were to allow ourselves to be the fossil fuel funnel for the Far East (below; it's from the environmental group Protect Whatcom). The proposals affect every part of the state, and require close attention if the public's voice is to be heard. The comment period for the Millennium Bulk Logistics coal terminal in Longview is coming to an end on Nov. 18. And next week, the Washington Environmental Council and a host of other environmental groups are offering a workshop for those interested in learning about the proposals. 

Washington State prides itself on its green patina, now is the time for the public to learn and speak up about these export proposals before that reputation begins to rust.

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Source: Whatcom Protects/  


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