Skagit County report gives go-ahead for Tesoro refinery expansion

A proposed project at Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes would add up to five additional vessels to export xylene to East Asia.
A proposed project at Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes would add up to five additional vessels to export xylene to East Asia. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Skagit County officials say a proposed expansion at an oil refinery in Anacortes would have no significant environmental impacts, meaning the refinery can now apply for construction permits.

In the final environmental impact statement released Monday, Skagit County Planning and Development Services said the proposed project at the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery at March Point would require no mitigation. Refinery officials said subject to permitting, the project could be completed by 2018.

Tesoro’s proposal, the Clean Products Upgrade Project, would upgrade or build new equipment to reduce the sulfur content of its fuels and to extract the chemical compound xylene during the refining process. The xylene would be shipped overseas, primarily to East Asia, for use in manufacturing plastics, polyesters and other materials.

The production of up to 15,000 barrels of xylene per day would result in an additional five vessels visiting the refinery each month, according to project documents. The refinery’s barrels-per-day refining capacity would not change.

Refinery officials emphasized there would be “absolutely no increase in rail traffic,” a key point of contention among environmental activists who protested at the facility last summer.

“Each additional tanker or barge in the Salish Sea compounds the already crowded shipping traffic and increases the risk of spills of crude oil and other refined products,” said Re-Sources for Sustainable Communities on its webpage about the project.

Now that the EIS is complete, permits could be issued for the refinery project as early as July 17, according to the document. If permits are received, construction could begin this year.

The project would involve building a new steam boiler, several storage tanks and extending a natural gas pipeline to the refinery dock. It would also require widening the access road to the refinery off North Texas Road, receiving up to 50 additional trucks at the refinery per day and having between 190 and 270 temporary construction workers on site.

Operation of the new equipment would bring 20 new full-time staff members to the refinery.

The refinery needs permits from several local, state and federal agencies to proceed, according to the EIS. Those agencies may use the EIS to guide their decisions about permits.

The Northwest Clean Air Agency is in the process of reviewing air permit applications for the project.

Refinery officials have said the upgrade is needed to comply with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement to begin reducing sulfur emissions from gasoline this year.

Reducing sulfur emissions is expected to improve health nationwide, according to the EIS.

Several who spoke at an April 17 open house about the proposal said while they like the idea of reducing sulfur emissions, they are concerned about the risks storing xylene at March Point and shipping it through the Salish Sea may pose to workers, surrounding communities and the environment.

The potential for a major marine spill remains the only significant environmental impact of the project, according to the final EIS.

Since the likelihood of a major spill is low, Skagit County concluded that existing permit requirements, safety procedures and emergency response plans are adequate to address the potential impact.