In compromise, Washington state oil safety legislation focuses on crude-by-rail

Oil trains on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2014 at the new BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop. The Washington Legislature passed safety laws that require advanced notice before oil is transferred from rail cars and extend a 4-cent-per-barrel tax to oil moved by rail.
Oil trains on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2014 at the new BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop. The Washington Legislature passed safety laws that require advanced notice before oil is transferred from rail cars and extend a 4-cent-per-barrel tax to oil moved by rail. The Bellingham Herald

State lawmakers compromised to pass oil-by-rail safety legislation that requires advanced notice before oil is transferred from rail cars and extends a 4-cent-per-barrel tax to oil moved by rail.

The measure that officially passed Friday, April 24, the last day of the regular session, was originally sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, though the final version lacked several elements of her original legislation.

“Although this bill begins to address the urgent need for more safety surrounding oil transportation in our state, it is only a first step,” Farrell said in a statement. “As the oil transportation industry shifts, we need to stay ahead of the changes while still working to ensure our marine safety program remains successful.”

Originally, Farrell’s bill also would have levied the barrel tax on oil moved into the state by pipeline, and would have raised the rate from 4 to 10 cents to fund other programs in the bill, but those measures were removed by the Senate, which had passed its own version of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

Ericksen, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, said the final rule focused on crude by rail.

“As soon as some of the Democrats realized we’re working on crude by rail, we made better progress,” Ericksen said of the negotiations made to reach consensus. “Crude by rail is the emerging issue, it’s the one people are concerned about, and we already have the best marine safety system in the world. What we got was legislation that will make crude by rail safer in Washington state.”

The Washington Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group, expressed concern about the final legislation not being as extensive as it could have been.

“The industry is not being charged for oil coming in by pipeline, and there’s no increase in the tax to adequately fund the programs,” said Rebecca Ponzio, oil campaign director for the environmental council. “In order to remain the best, we need to continually evolve our programs to reflect reality. Barges are more and more being used and they’re very under-regulated here in Washington. That’s an area where we’re not on the cutting edge.”

In its original form, Farrell’s bill included provisions for a vessel traffic risk assessment for Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and the mouth of the Columbia River. The study would have been used to craft rules for tug escorts for vessels not currently covered by state laws for oil tankers.

Those provisions were all but struck from the final legislation, which provides for a group to study possible regulation for the Columbia River and allows changing the rules for Grays Harbor only if a new facility is permitted there, or if an existing facility gets a permit to receive crude oil for the first time.

Farrell’s original bill was requested by Gov. Jay Inslee to implement a series of oil safety recommendations made in a state Department of Ecology oil transportation study. Ericksen’s original bill focused on updating geographic response plans and expanding the tax to crude by rail, and was supported by industry groups including the Western States Petroleum Association, BNSF, and the Columbia River Steamship Operator’s Association.

Frank Holmes, a representative for WSPA, said the association supported the legislation that was passed.

BNSF, the largest railroad operating in the state, was still reviewing the details of the legislation but was glad to be able to work with the state to advance their interests in crude oil safety, spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.

“This legislation joins new voluntary requirements and new federal requirements,” Wallace wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “While the details and interaction of these new requirements at all levels are being sorted out, one thing that’s clear is that all parties have stepped forward to aggressively improve safety.”

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates railroads in the state as a partner agency with the Federal Railroad Administration, got everything it had asked for, including funding for eight new rail inspectors, paid for by an increased tax on the railroads’ intrastate revenue.

The rule gives the UTC authority to inspect the roughly 3,000 private rail crossings in the state, and create a rule for about 350 private crossings that crude oil travels over. Previously, the UTC could inspect private crossings, but had to give plenty of lead time to coordinate because an FRA escort was required, said Jason Lewis, UTC transportation policy adviser.

“Neither the federal government nor the state had any authority over private crossings, so they weren’t on an inspection schedule,” Lewis said. “If it was part of a quiet zone, the federal government would conduct an inspection ... but outside of that there was no real inspection criteria for a private crossing. ... So we are going to adopt one, particularly with those 350 crossings on the oil route.”

The legislation will require a week’s notice to Ecology before oil is transferred from a rail car in the state. That notice has to include the route the oil train travels, if known, the time it’s scheduled to arrive, and how much oil is aboard. Emergency responders could get that information from the state, while the public will be able to access quarterly compilations of the data.

Once signed by the governor, the new law will require railroads to submit oil spill contingency plans to the state and show they have the ability to pay for a worst-case spill, and require a review of all the state’s geographic response plans.

“I know the naysayers are talking about whatever, it doesn’t raise taxes, but we will come out of this session with the most comprehensive crude by rail legislation in the country, and I think the people of Washington should be happy about that,” Ericksen said.