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.
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Oil trains move through new rail trackage at Everett. The four tracks were built last summer.

The Obama administration's position is a mystery for those worried about Washington state becoming an energy pipeline to Asia.

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.

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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.

There is little preparation for these problems. A little-known state agency, the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board, spent $57 million in state funds in 2002-2011 to deal with rail congestion. A single urban overpass can cost $10 million or more. Federal funds are tight and local money is virtually non-existent. Funding pressure is expected at all levels of government, from powerful railroad, oil and coal lobbies.

Look also for a Big Oil full-court press to repeal a federal ban on the export of American crude oil (except Alaskan crude), in place for nearly half a century. Under current law, Bakken crude headed for West Coast ports can be used only by West Coast refineries, and Bakken’s potential is greater than refinery capacities.

The export proposal will produce sparks in Congress, where oil-state Democrats may join Republicans to carry the industry’s case. The Obama administration will be critical, and export opponents are already wary of the White House on energy exports.

Gateway Pacific and Millennium got good news in 2013, with a ruling by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it would limit its environmental review to the actual project site. It rejected a broader federal review of climate change and transportation as outside the Corps’ jurisdiction.

To the extent that the Corps reflects priorities of the White House, opponents of energy exports fear the neutering of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which has consistently urged a broad review. Bloomberg’s Paul Shukovsky raised that issue in December. If, as Shukovsky speculates, the administration is “position(ing) the U.S. to become a global leader in fossil fuel exports,” then Northwest opponents of exporting both coal and oil may have an uphill battle.

Climate change has increasingly become a partisan issue. Pew Research issued a report in November, showing that while 66 percent of Democrats believe humans are the main cause of warming, only 24 percent of Republicans agree. An amazing 44 percent of Republicans (and 70 percent of Tea Party supporters) simply don’t believe the earth is warming (compared to 8 percent of Democrats).

The Pew survey indicates that the millions put into climate denial by Big Energy have found a mark. Count on more of the same as we elect a new Congress this year. Big Energy is a political juggernaut. Several items leap out from data assembled by the public watchdog Open and its analysis of Big Energy. 

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Coal companies in 2012 put $13.5 million into Congressional campaigns and railroads added $8.5 million, their largest spendingin both cases since at least 1990. Big Coal spent $17.4 million in 2012 and railroads $46.6 million on Congressional lobbying. The oil and gas industry spent $141 million. Most went to Republicans.

Photo at right: Oil trains at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes. Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy 

Climate change has already reared its partisan head locally. One product of Republican takeover of the State Senate was the elevatation of Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale to chair of Energy. Ericksen is an early supporter of Gateway Pacific — which is in his district — as are two oil refineries. Ericksen has been well funded in past campaigns by energy companies, having received at least $20,000 for his campaigns from the oil industry, according to state contribution filings. He opened the 2014 session by grilling Ecology on its broad interpretation of environmental reviews.

Partisanship is everywhere on energy exports. In the 2013 race for critical seats on the Whatcom County Council — which will cast major votes on coalport permits — the four “nonpartisan” races were quickly linked to political parties. Export-terminal opponents drove the campaign’s energy and elected four Democrats. They won’t vote on Gateway Pacific for perhaps two years, so the record-breaking money spent in the 2013 Whatcom elections may be repeated in 2015.

Backers of the coal and oil export terminals have sold their plans to many citizens by stressing the jobs to be created at the ports, railroads and associated firms. Perhaps ironically, the terminal debate has already been a job creator, in advertising and public relations, campaign workers and call centers, researchers at activist organizations, lobbyists and lawyers, and (not least) experts and governmental employees who work on the massive environmental studies.

The big money folks will be watching the coal market, which was soft in 2013, particularly for Powder River Basin coal. Coal exports are slow and coal-based pollution in China continues to rise off the charts. The latest data from the Energy Information Administration is a mixed bag at best for the industry. The terminals were proposed at the peak of the coal market and projections of an Asian boom. Many of the favorable markers have declined in the past four years, and trend lines will be sharply watched in 2014.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.