By Josh Wolf
As massive fossil fuel proposals come to the Pacific Northwest, the region is poised to become the new focal point for environmentalists. With popular support, and political pressure, Washington could lead by example in denying construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
There are currently 20 large fossil fuel projects in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia: “four new coal terminals, three expansions of existing terminals, two new oil pipelines, 11 oil-by-rail facilities, and six new natural gas pipelines,” according to the Sightline Institute, an independent non-profit research company from Seattle.
If built, these new fossil fuel projects in the Pacific Northwest would be capable of exporting more than five times as much climate-warming carbon as the infamous Keystone XL pipeline.
The comparison between Keystone XL and the Pacific Northwest’s fossil fuels is useful, not only to illustrate the massive quantity of carbon threatening our region, but mainly because there are lessons to be learned from the Keystone XL controversy.
The Keystone XL—which would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico—has been the focal point of environmentalists for years. Some of the largest environmentalist groups in the U.S., such as the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Greenpeace have waged massive campaigns against the international pipeline. Most recently, on Jan. 13, thousands of people demonstrated throughout the country, urging Obama to veto Keystone XL.
Republicans controlling the House and Senate have vowed to pass a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL, while Obama said he would likely veto the pipeline.
Yet, as the New York Times reported earlier this month, the Keystone XL has less to do with the environment, and more to do with politics.
Ironically, while environmentalists have fought against it, the construction of Keystone XL matters little for climate change. “The pipeline will have little effect, [energy and policy experts] say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States,” according to energy and policy experts reported in the Times.
Whether or not the pipeline is built, the tar sands oil is going to be dug up, shipped out, and burned.
Even more ironically, if the pipeline is not built, then TransCanada “will look to the more dangerous alternative of building rail terminals,” to transport the oil using railroads, according to the Associated Press.
Since oil companies increased their use of railroads by 4,300 percent in the past five years, concern over oil-by-rail has been growing, and with good reason. In 2013 alone, North America saw more serious oil train derailments than in the past 40 years combined, including a derailed oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, and destroying 40 buildings.
Last July, an oil train carrying nearly 100 oil-cars derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Luckily, there was no spill or explosion.
The environmentalist group ForestEthics estimates that “25 million Americans live within the one-mile evacuation zone that the US Department of Transportation recommends in the event of an oil fire,” writes VICE News.
With 25 million Americans dangerously close to oil trains, and while environmentalists wage campaigns against the Keystone XL, pipelines may actually be a safer, better alternative to oil trains.
So, why are mainstream environmentalist groups so focused on the Keystone XL? Because environmentalists have framed the Keystone XL pipeline to represent a clear choice for Obama: approve the pipeline to symbolize support of fossil fuels, or reject the Keystone XL and signal a shift away from fossil fuels.
Under political pressure from environmentalists, Obama vowed to reject the Keystone XL. Regardless of the pipeline’s effect on fossil fuels and climate change, environmentalists have created a landmark moment for fossil fuels in the United States.
Washington state could do the same.
With fossil fuel projects five times as devastating as the Keystone XL, Washington is poised to take a stand against climate change. And people are already organizing to ensure fossil fuel infrastructure doesn’t get built.
On Nov. 21, a group of Washingtonian politicians, environmentalists, doctors, firefighters, and labor leaders sent an open letter to Gov. Jay Inslee voicing their concerns, specifically with proposed oil train projects.
The letter to the governor represents the beginning of a statewide effort in taking a stand against fossil fuels, and signees include two Port of Olympia commissioners, the president of Washington State Council of Firefighters, the president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, the president of Grays Harbor Audubon, the president of Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s association, as well as city council members from Aberdeen and Spokane.
The letter states that the proposed oil train projects 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.
In addition to this diverse group pressuring Inslee to reject oil trains, 16 separate resolutions have been passed throughout Washington opposing the transport and storage of crude oil, including the cities of Vancouver and Aberdeen, according to the Washington Environmental Council.
If Washingtonians continue pressuring Inslee to take a stand against the proposed fossil fuel projects, the state may be able to save itself from oil trains, coal trains, and pipelines.
Washington needs to reject and destroy these devastating fossil fuel projects, not only for the state’s own safety, but for the national fight against climate change.