Oil-by-rail regulation needs bolster

Two major bills in the Legislature deal with the fast-growing train shipment of volatile North Dakota crude oil through Washington. Both have good elements, but the version backed by Gov. Jay Inslee in the Democrat-controlled House is better than what the Republican-led Senate has been willing to support.

Inslee’s proposal, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle, builds on recommendations from a study conducted by the Department of Ecology at the request of the Legislature.

Inslee and Farrell want shippers and refiners to give advance notice to the Department of Ecology when they transfer oil between such facilities as refineries, pipelines, railroads and ships. House Bill 1449 also lets the state require tug escorts for oil shipments over water.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale has proposed $10 million to help local firefighters and emergency crews prepare for spills by acquiring safety equipment. But Ericksen’s Senate Bill 5057 falls short. It doesn’t require information disclosures that could help first-responders better assess local risks and refine responses after spills.

Rail tanker traffic has soared since 2011 as oil fracking in North Dakota dramatically opened a new domestic supply of oil. Despite industry assurances it’s still unclear how well Washington is prepared for accidents involving explosive Bakken crude or heavy tar sands oil from Canada.

About 19 fully loaded trains each with at least 100 tankers full of Bakken crude move across the state every week. Proposals to ship oil from Grays Harbor and the Columbia River to other coastal harbors are pending regulatory approval.

Better disclosure of oil shipments to state regulators and emergency responders lets emergency crews and local fire departments prepare adequately for the worst. An oil spill in November discovered at a refinery in Ferndale serves as a small but fresh reminder there are gaps in information sharing between industry and regulators. The spill of 1,611 gallons of crude was not disclosed to state regulators for a month despite a routine report by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to federal regulators. The spill could have occurred anywhere along the train’s 1,200 mile route from North Dakota, according to a McClatchy Newspapers report.

The rival legislative proposals have many elements that matter. Both slap a fee on every barrel of oil transported by rail in Washington to help pay for cleanups from spills that are inevitable under current rules. Ericksen extends an existing 4 cent per barrel fee now collected on tanker shipments and pipelines to include rail, and he deserves credit for that move. Inslee would raise the fee to 10 cents.

Inslee’s plan has money for regional response plans prepared by Ecology. Ericksen, who is leery of giving authority to Ecology, wants private contractors to prepare many of those plans then have the Legislature review them. Inslee also wants to require shippers such as railroads to show they have insurance to cover spill-damage costs.

There are other proposals affecting private rail crossings in cities and the authority of state inspectors to inspect rail tankers at refineries.

Regulatory steps that have teeth are urgently needed, especially as federal agencies dither in adopting new rules for safer oil-tanker design.