Oil Trains: The Bigger Pipeline

Oil Transportation Ignites Environmental and Safety Debate in Washington

By Josh Wolf

The Keystone XL pipeline has become a monumental symbol for the environmentalist movement in the United States: should the world’s largest consumer of oil approve or reject the 830,000-barrel-per-day pipeline? Democrats and Republicans have debated Keystone XL on the national stage for years, and media outlets placed the pipeline in the center of controversy when protesters opposed the project. And while the Keystone XL is currently the focal point of environmentalism in the U.S., proposed oil train projects in Washington state have gone largely unnoticed in the media. If the currently proposed oil train projects come to pass in Washington state, more oil would travel over Washington’s railroads than through the controversial Keystone XL.

Ten new oil train terminals and refineries in Washington are seeking permits of approval from the government, and if all of the oil train projects are approved and built, Washington’s oil-by-rail capacity would increase from a maximum of 185,000 barrels carried per day, to a maximum 838,900 barrels, according to a report released by the Sightline Institute, an independent research group in Seattle.

The proposed oil train terminals and refineries would either be built or expanded at Ferndale (outside of Bellingham), Anacortes, Grays Harbor, Tacoma, and Vancouver. The facility at Vancouver would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the U.S.

This potential 450 percent increase of oil-by-rail in Washington would be a massive expansion of fossil fuels in the state, and while Washington oil trains have yet to breach the mainstream, the proposals are already being met by a broad coalition that opposes oil trains.

This alliance of local politicians, environmentalists, doctors, firefighters, and labor leaders sent an open letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on Nov. 21, voicing their concerns with the proposed oil train projects. The letter represents a statewide effort in taking a stand against oil trains, and signees include two Port of Olympia Commissioners, the president of Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, the president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, the president of Grays Harbor Audubon, the president of Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, as well as city council members from Aberdeen and Spokane.

The group writes that the proposed oil terminals and refineries fall directly under the “executive jurisdiction” of Gov. Inslee, and the letter asks Inslee to deny permits of construction for the proposed oil-by-rail projects.
The letter states that oil train derailments, spills, and explosions would threaten public safety, endanger drinking water and marine life, and violate tribal treaty rights. The letter also states that the projects could “threaten the very essence of Washington state,” and would go against the governor’s “commitment to a clean energy future and a robust sustainable economy.”

The letter was written after the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) held a public meeting in Olympia to hear public comments on its $300,000 study of marine and rail transportation of oil, which was funded by the Legislature, and expedited by Inslee. The study focuses “on developing recommendations to foster public health and safety, environmental protection, and respect for tribal treaty rights,” according to the report. The DOE’s report, which is in an interim draft form, was presented to the governor and Legislature in December, and will be finalized on March 1st.

The report recommends greater funding for Washington’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program, as well as greater funding for “local first responder firefighter equipment,” and many of the speakers at the public meeting were concerned with possible explosions, due to the highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, which makes up one third of the oil transported by rail in Washington.

One concern is derailments and explosions, which firefighters say the state is not prepared for. “Even the largest and most sophisticated fire departments in Washington are not adequately prepared or equipped,” said Kent Firefighter Geoff Simpson, who represented the Washington Council of Firefighters at the DOE’s public meeting. “One thing is clear from all the explosions and derailments,” said Simpson. “There is no safe way to transport Bakken crude oil by rail.”

“Since July 2013, there have been nine serious oil train derailments across North America—more than in the past four decades combined,” said Olympia Mayor Steven Buxbaum, Evergreen alumni and faculty. These derailments included an explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, and destroying 40 buildings. Nathaniel Jones, Olympia mayor pro tem, pointed out that

“More than 1.2 million gallons spilled from oil trains in 2013.”
As the opposition against oil-by-rail in Washington grows, 16 cities and counties have passed “resolutions voicing their concerns around oil trains,” including the Port of Olympia, and the port cities of Vancouver and Hoquiam.
With the state poised to approve or deny an expansion of oil trains transportation, there is the possibility of more oil passing through Washington than the Keystone XL. The state’s leaders are gearing up for action on oil-by-rail as the new legislative session begins, and people are organizing against the proposed pipeline by rail.