This week I attended, “Risky Business: how oil transport threatens Washington’s economy, health and waters”, a panel discussion held at the University of Washington and sponsored by a suite of environmental organizations including Sightline, Columbia Riverkeepers, Surfrider Foundation, Washington Environmental Council, Forest Ethics, and others.
Whew. There is a LOT going on with this issue in the PNW, and the environmental, legal and safety communities are running very hard just to catch up to where this issue is heading.
A quick aside: first, we begin with a song. I feel like opening meetings with songs is something I have not seen since the anti-nukes rallies my mom dragged me to in the 70s, but I totally loved this. Dana Lyons is a musician and environmental activist who opened this meeting with a beautiful song about the history of orcas and environmental impacts in Puget Sound. He is also embarking on a Coal Train Tour to sing and spread awareness about coal train impacts around Puget Sound. Musicians with an environmental focus are pretty rare these days- I give this guy a lot of credit for taking his passions and combining them. Plus, he’s got a lovely voice so that helps.
Following this dose of artistry, we launched into the whirlwind tour of oil train issues, which Im going to try my hardest to organize in some kind of coherent manner; there was a LOT covered, so hopefully I can make this gel. Six panelists spoke on a variety of aspects of the oil train issue that is exploding- pun intended, more on that in a moment- in Puget Sound. To understand the push for oil trains, what we need to first understand is that the oil resources that companies want to export from North America are “stranded”- that is, they’re in the interior of the US and Canada, far from where they need to be- that is, heading out on ships to feed oil-hungry countries across the Pacific. So far, several of these projects have been prioritizing pipeline development as a way to move the oil, the most well-known of these being the Keystone XL pipeline (see Actions 48, 61, and 63, among others). Production of these oils is to some extent outstripping capacity, and is additionally meeting substantial resistance from the environmental community. In Canada, pipelines seeking to move oil from the Alberta Tarsands west to the coast have met fierce resistance from First Nations people.
So oil-by-rail is becoming the latest push to solve capacity issues and move oil for export where it needs to go. And the proposals include some pretty massive movement of oil through Washington State. At the Port of Vancouver, oil-by-rail would bring in 360,000 barrels per day: about 40% of the Keystone XL’s proposed capacity. Grays Harbor is facing 3 oil-by-rail terminal proposals, for a combined throughput of tens of millions of barrels per year; its estimated that 97 million barrels of crude would be stored at the edge of the estuary, adjacent to ecologically rich and economically vital resources including shorebird habitat and shellfish aquaculture. So far, 2 permits have been blocked by the Shoreline Hearings Board for failure to conduct adequate assessment of environmental impacts.
Beside the obvious and clear concern with millions of gallons of oil being transported through and stored on ecologically sensitive areas, and the obvious contributions of this exported oil to global greenhouse gas emissions, there are additional concerns that all the participants in the panel pointed out need to be better understood and quantified, including:
- additional vessel traffic: Fred Felleman with Friends of the Earth summarized a recent study he has undertaken in partnership with other regional organizations to understand the impact of oil export on shipping traffic. FoE and partnering organizations have formed the Safe Shipping Alliance of the Salish Sea to look further into the various potential impacts caused by additional vessel traffic that would stem from increased oil exports, including effects on Puget Sound and the Salish Sea’s noise scape, risks of spills, vessel emissions and visual impacts.
- spill and explosion risks: oil is flammable, spill-able, and will be transported under pressure in train cars through Puget Sound and along the Columbia River if these plans move forward. We have some recent awful examples of what happens when oil trains have accidents, with the explosive recent incidents including the 2.7 million gallon spill of oil into wetlands in Alabama, and in Quebec, where 42 people were killed when an oil train carrying fuel from the Bakken shale derailed and exploded in July of this year. What was stunning to learn about at this event was how incredibly insufficient and outdated Washington State’s laws are that could be used to regulate and oversee the spill risks associated with oil trains. Most of our laws that would address this issue are from the 1970s, and were primarily designed to address oil tankers coming into Puget Sound from Alaska, such as requiring a tug be present with a vessel in case it loses power when it is in the Sound. The Grays Harbor refineries would not even be covered by these regulations, as they are mostly related to requirements that cover traffic in Puget Sound. And we absolutely do not have the equipment in place to deal with tar sands spills- tar sands oil sinks, it does not float, and our spill response equipment is limited to addressing floating oils. Bruce Wishart of the Washington Environmental Council argued articulately for the need for a pause on rushing forward with these proposals on their spill risks alone; we clearly do not have the regulatory and response mechanisms we should have in place to deal with these increased risks, and it is quite foolish to move forward without this infrastructure in place from a safety standpoint alone.
The oil train issue is barreling down the tracks at us here in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Clearly, this is an issue of great concern for a number of reasons, including climate change but also extending to spill risks, noise and visual disturbance, and public safety. In coming Actions I’ll be taking some concrete steps to voice my opinion and concerns over these proposals; I hope you will join me.