Some hailed President Barack Obama’s recent veto of the Keystone pipeline authorization legislation as an early Earth Day gift, spelling the project’s death knell. However, his decision was actually based on process, not policy. While Obama has articulated the science behind climate change better than any predecessor, his all-of-the-above energy strategy has opened the floodgates to unprecedented levels of domestic fossil fuel extraction with lax oversight.
These policies resulted in disasters such as BP’s indelible mark on the Gulf of Mexico five Earth Days ago. In typical fashion, regulators responded with some of the long-needed oversight, but offshore production soon came roaring back.
Recent oil train derailments, exposing communities to elevated risks, also reflect the administration’s policies in the face of the gusher of under-regulated fracked oil as it became cost-effective to bring to market by rail. While Bakken oil is the primary source of this incendiary risk, there are still only proposed national regulations on fracking without consideration of climate impacts. Despite the growing number of oil-train accidents, only weak requirements for safer tanker cars are being developed though Sen. Maria Cantwell just introduced legislation beginning to address this deficiency.
Leases are also being let on public lands at bargain-basement rates for coal extraction and risky Arctic oil exploration. Even after Shell Oil’s calamitous attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea three years ago, resulting in eight felony convictions and $12.2 million in fines, the company is pursuing Arctic development this year.
Closer to home, Shell has secured the ability to use Terminal 5 from the Port of Seattle to maintain their oil rigs. This is yet another reflection of how the Northwest is being broadly targeted as the gateway for oil, coal and liquefied natural gas to Asian markets – all of which contribute unacceptable climate impacts.
Not since the late 1970s, when NW refineries switched from receiving crude oil from Alberta by pipeline to tankers from Alaska and elsewhere, have Washington’s waters and communities been exposed to such a growth in vessel casualties and oil spill risk. Despite the abandonment of four coal terminal proposals, there are still nearly 20 proposals for oil, coal, propane and LNG terminals either under review or recently permitted.
There is a major difference between the proactive safety planning that preceded the arrival of Alaskan oil tankers in the 1970s with the ad hoc gold-rush mentality that pervades today’s permit decisions.
The last time there was such a growing threat of catastrophic spills, the late Sen. Warren Magnuson took the lead in protecting the Sound from spills. He restricted the size and number of tankers transiting east of Port Angeles and worked on other national and local safety measures, like the 1978 Port and Tanker Safety Act and the creation of an international vessel traffic system in North America, enabling the Coast Guard to serve as ship traffic controllers in the Pacific Northwest. These measures lasted the test of time and continue to contribute to our admirable oil spill record – a legacy to endure. However, it is critical not to rest on our laurels especially since frequency of incidents and accidents are a far better indication of risk exposure than rare spills.
In contrast, today, while new risks accumulate, we see reductions being made in rail and marine safety measures, despite efforts by Sen. Cantwell and others. Such reductions include:
- Rail companies are trying to negotiate with unions to reduce the number of crew from two to one required for the operation of 100-plus-car oil trains. The Federal Railroad Administration has not even defined the minimum crew size required for safe operations despite years of requests by the NTSB.
- The Obama administration recently published clarification as to the seven ways in which domestically produced crude can be exported from the U.S. Despite this liberalization of exports, oil companies are pushing Congress for complete elimination of the longstanding ban on exports of U.S. oil.
- The U.S. Army Corps asserted in the draft environmental impact statement, 10 years in the making, for the construction of BP’s second tanker dock at Cherry Point that the agency’s permit did not violate a Magnuson amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But the amendment seems to explicitly prohibit such actions. They have also yet to respond to the Lummi’s tribe call to abandon the Gateway coal project due to impacts to their treaty-protected rights.
- The Washington State Pilotage Commission recently reduced the training required of pilots allowed to guide oil tankers in and out of Grays Harbor -- despite growth in vessel traffic and three newly proposed oil terminals there.
- Gov. Jay Inslee and local governments failed to require full environmental impact statements evaluating the chronic train and cumulative vessel impacts of the numerous oil terminal proposals prior to issuing permits. The only time such analysis has been required is in response to lawsuits. (An infographic was produced by Friends of the Earth and Protect Whatcom to visualize this increase associated with new terminals.)
One recent exercise of state authority was the Utilities and Trade Commission’s (UTC) fines against BNSF’s series of oil spills from oil trains calling on Washington. While such leadership is encouraging, in reality we don’t need their money as much as we need to be freed from their leaky oil trains. Similarly, on the marine front there is state legislation calling for tugs to escort the growing number of oil barges moving through Washington waters.
The combined vessel traffic currently bound to and from ports in Washington and British Columbia make the Strait of Juan de Fuca the second busiest waterway in North America.
While Washington’s regulatory agencies are overwhelmed by the onslaught of new terminal proposals and the fate of the Keystone pipeline nationally remains uncertain, there is a major threat coming from Canada to Washington and British Columbia’s Salish Sea. Former Enron executives acquired the Kinder Morgan pipeline that currently connects the vast Alberta tar sand reserves with a port near Vancouver, British Columbia. They are now seeking permits from Canada’s National Energy Board to triple its capacity, making it comparable in volume to the far better known Keystone proposal.
A spur in the Trans Mountain pipeline has also directly connected Washington’s four largest refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties to Albertan oil since the 1950s. This helps explain why the refineries were constructed in the navigationally challenging waters through the San Juan Islands, rather than along the much broader Juan de Fuca Strait.
This expansion would result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic transiting through the San Juan Islands and the core area of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale community. The tankers would go from about one per week to one per day. Researchers at the George Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University calculated this would result in a 51 percent increase in the amount of oil transported through the Salish Sea and increases in the risks of oil spills from collisions and groundings.
Tar Sands pose unique challenges to the response community. In order to get the heavy bitumen produced in Alberta to flow into pipelines, rail cars and tankers, it needs to be mixed with highly volatile diluents. This mixture, known as dilbit, has been shown to be explosive during accidents. And, during spills, the evaporation of volatile vapors poses health risks to responders, while the heavy remainders sink in water, complicating clean-up efforts.
Despite risks of Trans Mountain’s proposed expansion to the Salish Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard has been reluctant to release incident data in these boundary waters, claiming that is up to Canada – including when incidents occurred in U.S. waters. The lack of this data has underrepresented the vessel casualty risk in the analysis conducted for several terminal proposals.
Building a cross-Cascades pipeline to bring Alaskan oil to the Rocky Mountain states was part of the original plan to construct the state’s largest refinery (ARCO, now BP Cherry Point) north of Bellingham in the 1970s. This would have significantly increased the number of tankers calling on our waters that Magnuson’s efforts successfully thwarted. Now there is state legislation introduced to study sending oil over the cascades in the other direction, thereby connecting Washington refineries to Midwest oil. A recent series of major pipeline leaks has demonstrated how regulations have also lagged behind this oft-touted safest form of oil transportation. Since 2012, according the AP, 50 pipelines have been constructed – adding 3.3 million barrels of daily pipeline capacity, dwarfing Keystone’s 800,000. Between 2004 and 2012, U.S. pipelines spilled three times as much crude as oil trains.
As restrictions on the export of domestic oil are lifted, any purported benefits of pipelines will be quickly eclipsed by the risks associated with the increased volumes of oil being shipped overseas.
Based on statements in the President’s State of the Union address calling on Congress to send him something more than just a pipeline bill, it appears that he is willing to horse trade the completion of the Keystone pipeline for Republican support of his other priority infrastructure projects. Regardless, the uncertainty about Keystone has only emboldened Kinder Morgan to influence Canadian government decision-makers to get one of the world’s largest, most destructive and energy inefficient oil sources to international markets, risking the Salish Sea waters Washington shares with Canada.
As we look toward Earth Day, it’s sobering to remember the failures of oil shipment policies the country has seen. It was 26 years ago last week (March 24) that the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into the biological oasis of Prince William Sound. After that, Congress finally required tankers to be double hulled. It took until this year to complete the phase out of all single-hulled tankers, each carrying up to 33 million gallons of crude through Washington waters. One of Magnuson’s last actions was to write to Congress on his deathbed following Exxon’s abject failure to prevent or respond to their despoiling of Prince William Sound, calling on that body to require double hulls for oil tankers.
Obama’s priority trade deal, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), will require compensating fossil fuel extractors for potential lost revenues if they are required to “keep it in the ground.” This subsidy undermines an essential step for combating catastrophic climate impacts.
The great legacy, from Magnuson and others, of protecting of Puget Sound is under threat. We need stronger local, state and congressional leadership on energy and the environment. And we need our next president to redefine an “all of the above” energy policy into one that transfers subsidies from peddlers of fossil fuel to peddlers of bicycles and for energy truly coming from above, such as wind and solar power. Otherwise, our children will lose the benefits of the natural capital we are jeopardizing by our lack of long-term vision.
A link to a half-hour radio interview on March 25 with the author elaborating on this subject can be found on the Speak Up Speak Out Radio website.
Terry Wechsler, President of Whatcom Watch, contributed to this article.