Moratorium on oil terminal permitting needed to consider environmental risks

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 13, 2014 

The dizzying pace of new fossil fuel proposals in the Pacific Northwest, and the massive scope of coal export proposals like Gateway Pacific Terminal, makes it difficult for regulators or the public to understand the risks building up around us, and what we need to be prepared for.

Within the last two years, four new oil-by-rail terminals have been built in Washington and Oregon, with six more proposed. Each was built before the uniquely explosive nature of Bakken crude was understood, and before the Canadian government released a study showing that highly toxic tar sands sludge sinks in aquatic spills, making it nearly impossible to clean up. And these are precisely the types of crudes proposed to be railed to the new facilities and loaded onto tankers along our coast.

At ForestEthics, we believe it's time for Gov. Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Goldmark to take a timeout on permitting new, expanded oil infrastructure until the risks to the public and environment can be understood.

To understand the context for these rail proposals, this week we've released our new report, Off the Rails, that examines the combined effects of the fossil fuel bonanza for the Pacific Northwest. And in December, ForestEthics and the Spokane Riverkeeper composed a moratorium request letter, signed by ten other groups, calling for just such a timeout and requesting a cumulative impacts assessment of all the projects in combination.

This Monday, we were joined by the City of Seattle, which voted 9-0 to request a moratorium on oil terminal permitting. And last week, the Port of Portland highlighted its concerns, unilaterally rejecting any new oil by rail terminals, writing, "...we do not believe that we have sufficient answers to the important questions regarding environmental and physical safety to proceed with any type of development at this time."

Despite the risks associated with oil transport - see the examples of Lac Megantic, Quebec, last summer, where 47 people died in an oil train explosion, and Casselton, N.D., this December, when thousands were evacuated in the dead of winter after an oil train derailed and exploded - each of the rail loops at BP Cherry Point and Tesoro in Anacortes received fast-track permits with no full environmental impact assessment or safety analysis.

Fast tracking these dangerous projects is inexcusable. A massive change in how oil arrives in this state needs to be understood from a public safety, environmental and economic perspective.

And the rub? We may be getting all the risk associated with oil flowing through the state, while the oil isn't even for us. The various rail proposals add up to more oil than Washington refineries use, meaning we could more than double the volume of crude moving through the state if all terminals are built.

The reality that this may all be about exports is where local concerns get even greater. With the American Petroleum Institute working to overturn the ban on American crude exports, and no limitations on the export of Canadian-origin crude, each of the refinery rail loops could transfer crude from train to ship to sell into world markets. How much more vessel traffic from the refineries can we cram into local waterways before a devastating oil spill is inevitable?

Each refinery terminal in Whatcom and Skagit will receive a certain volume, from one half to one full train each day. If all four receive permits, we would see over three full trains a day, and three empty, coming through Mount Vernon to March and Cherry Points.

But that's if they comply with their permits - the lack of oversight and regulation of this crude by rail industry allowed Global Partners, operating on tracks next to the Columbia, to transship six times their permitted throughput during 2013.

With no advance studies, no disclosure of cargo contents (industry lobbied against just such a bill in the legislature this year), fast-track permitting and the massive pull from world markets, it's just a matter of time before these rail proposals end in disaster.

Nobody wants a well-studied catastrophe. It's time we put a halt to these runaway proposals and really understand what we're getting ourselves into.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Krogh is campaign director at ForestEthics, a Bellingham-based environmental advocacy organization. For more information online, go to forestethics.org.

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