Ferndale senator’s oil safety bill faces competition in state House

Mirroring last session, two competing bills that would expand oil safety programs are making their way through the state Legislature, and compromises likely will be needed for either to pass.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, is working to pass House Bill 1449, which was requested by Gov. Jay Inslee to implement a series of oil safety recommendations made in a state Department of Ecology oil transportation study.

Among many other things, Farrell’s bill would require rail shippers to show they have enough money to cover the worst-case scenario of an oil spill from one of their shipments, similar to current requirements for marine oil transportation. It also would require rail shippers to give advance notice before transferring oil in the state.

Meanwhile, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is working to pass Senate Bill 5057, which has the support of the Western States Petroleum Association, BNSF, and the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association.

Ericksen’s bill would require Ecology to review and update geographic response plans around the state, provide grants to emergency responders for equipment and training, and extend a 4-cent-per-barrel petroleum product tax currently levied on marine transfers to apply to oil moved by rail.

Both bills would expand the state’s definition of oil to include products such as Canadian tar sands oil, and, after Ericksen’s bill was amended in committee, require the state to evaluate tug escort requirements for tankers traveling on the Columbia River and near Grays Harbor.

Farrell and Ericksen sponsored similarly competing bills last session, but neither passed.

Farrell’s proposal passed the House in 2014 but died in the Senate when Ericksen, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications committee, didn’t give the bill a hearing before a cutoff deadline. The bill Ericksen sponsored last session made it to the Senate floor, but Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, made a procedural motion to delay the vote by 24 hours, and the bill never made it back to the floor.

Ericksen’s 2014 bill had called for the state to study oil transportation. After the session ended, Inslee directed Ecology to study how oil is moved through the state and report back. A draft of the study, including policy recommendations, was finished in December. The final report is due to be released in March.

In a news release Thursday, Feb. 19, Ericksen said he is critical of Farrell’s proposal, and that his bill focuses in on oil train safety issues.

“Rail is the issue, not marine traffic,” Ericksen said in the release. “Rail transportation is a legitimate concern and we ought to do everything we can to improve public safety. But when it comes to shipping we already have one of the strongest regulatory programs in the country, and there is no evidence of a problem.”

Ericksen goes on to say he doesn’t understand why people want to “pump out information about railroad timetables, when hacking is a problem and information can never be made completely secure.”

“If we’re concerned about oil-train safety, the last thing we ought to do is to let the bad guys know that an oil train will be passing by at 5:15,” Ericksen said in the release.

Farrell said first responders need advance notice of what is coming through their communities so they can respond efficiently in the event of a disaster.

Similar to Ericksen’s bill, Farrell’s bill also would extend the barrel tax to crude-by-rail, as well as to crude transported by pipelines. However, it would increase the 4-cent-per-barrel tax to 10 cents per barrel to be put into the state’s oil spill prevention account.

At a hearing on the House bill earlier this month, oil and railroad company representatives said they would support levying the tax on crude by rail, as it would make up for the amount of money lost by transporting crude on trains instead of ships. However, they expressed their concern with the increase in the tax.

“WSPA opposes the expansion of the barrel tax to include product in pipelines,” said Frank Holmes, WSPA representative. “WSPA is also opposed to the 150 percent increase in the tax rate from 4 cents to 10 cents.”

A 1-cent oil spill response tax is also levied on each barrel of crude oil brought into the state. But once that account reaches $9 million, the tax is no longer collected until the account dips back below $8 million.

The account has capped out three times since it was started in 1991. The tax wasn’t collected from January 2002 to April 2007, October 2009 to January 2013, and hasn’t been collected since April 2013.

Funds from the response account currently can be used only for oil spill response projects with costs that are likely to exceed $50,000.

Neither the House or Senate bill would expand the cap on the oil spill response account.

Farrell said her bill doesn’t directly look at the cap but tries to find a balance, raising the tax that goes into the oil spill prevention account and requiring financial responsibility certificates from shippers.

“We want to make sure we have the funding to be proactive, which is part of raising the tax,” Farrell said. “At the end of the day, these cleanups can be very expensive, and state and local government shouldn’t be on the hook.”

Currently, barges carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil through state waters need to show they have financial responsibility for $5 million, or $300 per gross ton, whichever is greater. Tank vessels that carry bulk oil need to show they can pay at least $1 billion.

Under Farrell’s bill, the amount needed to show financial responsibility for railways would be calculated by multiplying the reasonable per-barrel cleanup and damage cost of spilled oil by the worst-case spill volume.

Following fiery crude oil derailments in Ontario, Canada, and West Virginia last weekend, Farrell said she was glad to see her bill pass out of the House Environment committee on Feb. 17 and get referred to the House Finance committee.

“Even though the cars involved in those spills were newer cars, we still saw a very big spill. I think the approach at the state level has to be comprehensive,” Farrell said. “We passed a very similar bill with bipartisan support last year. I’m hoping we can get (1449) to the Senate for a discussion.”

Ericksen’s bill is waiting for a vote in the Senate Ways and Means committee, which would then forward the bill to the rules committee and a potential floor vote if passed.

“The derailments in Ontario and West Virginia this week ought to make it clear to everyone that the Legislature needs to take action,” Ericksen said in his Feb. 19 news release. “We have a bill in the Senate that targets the issue of oil-train safety, without turning it into a political power-grab. It’s about time we passed it.”