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Activists in Pacific Northwest Face Off Against Largest Oil-By-Rail Terminal in North America

A Pacific Northwest coalition is opposing the construction of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in North America.

(Photo: Oil Train via Shutterstock)

Vancouver, Washington – Stand on the banks of the mighty Columbia River, and in the foggy mist of a Pacific Northwest winter, you may miss the rail tracks that lie on both of its banks. The panoramic vista will give you a sense of why front-line communities have long vowed to protect it from being expanded into a high-volume fossil-fuel corridor, years before Congress lifted the ban on US crude oil exports in late 2015.

The Columbia, which rises in the Canadian Rockies and flows on a long southern journey before it empties into the Pacific Ocean, has been central to the region’s culture and economy for thousands of years. Its salmon runs were sacred to Columbia River basin Indigenous tribes. Its scenic beauty has been protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Its energy has been captured for hydropower, irrigation and shipping. The first railroad came to the Columbia River Gorge in 1851 and in the new century, tracks were laid along both sides of its banks for freight and passengers.

Today, the tracks carry volatile light crude from the Bakken shale fields and carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, as well as coal and liquefied natural gas. In 2008, a nominal amount of crude passed through the area; by 2012, it had doubled and by 2015, tripled. Proposals to expand capacity with refineries, rail spurs and terminals up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast have been met with fierce resistance, in particular since 2012, and this resistance has often resulted in delays, mounting costs or cancellations. A proposal to build North America’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the mouth of the Columbia in Vancouver, Washington, could prove to be the most contentious yet. The lifting of the crude oil export ban – which happened in mid-December – is a shot across the bow, confirming for many that the frenzy to build capacity from Midwestern reserves to the Pacific Coast was always designed for Asian markets.

“It’s hard to imagine a bigger threat to the Columbia River than this project.”

The proposal by Tesoro, a Texas oil company, and Savage, a Utah logistics company, would handle an average of 360,000 barrels of oil by rail per day. The joint venture between the two companies, Vancouver Energy, was controversial from the moment it became public in 2013. This January public testimony will be heard on a draft environmental impact statement issued by Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The proposed oil-rail terminal generated 32,000 comments when news of it first surfaced, the majority in opposition. Columbia River tribes, including the Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs, as well as Coast Salish tribes, among others, have united with longshoremen, fire districts, city councils, small towns, cities, environmentalists who’ve worked for decades to restore and recover habitat for salmon at the mouth of the river, and developers who’ve spent millions restoring the Port of Vancouver waterfront where the oil-by-rail terminal would be built. Many are members of the campaign Stand Up to Oil, Communities Fueling Change.

“It’s hard to imagine a bigger threat to the Columbia River than this project,” Dan Serres, conservation director at the Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit organization, told Truthout. “An oil spill, an oil train disaster, a tanker leak or tanker spill in this part of the river would have devastating consequences for salmon recovery and for all the communities who rely on the river for drinking water, recreation, commerce and, of course, fishing.”

Tesoro plans to transfer oil from trains onto tankers that would sail down the Columbia out to the Pacific across a notoriously dangerous crossing called the Columbia River Bar. Mariners call it the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

Serres says the project poses as big a threat as any the river and its endangered, iconic salmon have ever known. Conflicts over hydroelectric dams, agriculture-water diversions, mining, logging and toxic runoff from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation upriver have long plagued the river. New challenges, like those from global warming, are also taking a toll. The Pacific Northwest wasn’t spared the globe’s record high temperatures in 2015. The Columbia River was warmer than it had been in over a century, exacerbated by a drought and exceedingly low water flows. Throw in the Tesoro project, says Serres, “and we’re not sleeping too well at night.”

Tesoro pledges high safety standards for the project. The company did not return a request for comment but project spokesman Jeff Hymas told the Willamette Week in December that, “crude oil is – and will continue being – safely transported through Vancouver via rail. Tesoro and Savage are actively engaged in the national effort to further enhance crude-oil-by-rail safety.”

The Dangers of Oil-by-Rail Transport

A report by Waterkeeper Alliance, Forest Ethics and Riverkeeper in November documented a 5,000-percent increase in oil train traffic since 2008 along routes “leading from oil fields in central Canada, the Great Plains and the Rockies to refineries and crude hubs along our nation’s coasts.” Truthout’s Candice Bernd, who cited the report, wrote that “this dramatic increase in oil train traffic has come with an accompanying uptick in tank car derailments, oil spills, fires and explosions across the United States.”

In Washington State, it’s estimated that 25 trains a week travel through the area, each with 100 cars carrying 70,000 barrels of oil. If the proposed oil-by-rail terminal is built the number of cars could multiply fivefold, depending on demand, oil prices and permits. The volume is “terrifying,” says Serres, for all those concerned about the safety and volatility of “bomb trains.”

“Lifting the ban is an industry giveaway that makes the oil opposition movement more important than it’s ever been.”

The state’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) notes that the Tesoro facility would have “significant direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on communities along the Columbia River.” Critics, however, say the impact statement’s analysis doesn’t go far enough and fails to adequately address the potential frequency of oil-by-rail incidents. The DEIS estimates there’s a 5 percent annual chance a tank vessel carrying crude oil from the facility will have an accident resulting in the release of crude into the Columbia River. Proposed mitigation for such spills, say critics, is “vague, speculative, and unlikely to be successful.”

A fact sheet prepared by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Riverkeeper also faults the DEIS for failing to adequately address the terminal’s impact on global emissions. The DEIS states that oil entering the facility would largely replace existing oil sources, resulting in a net greenhouse gas impact of zero. Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Riverkeeper dispute this, claiming that crude shipped to the facility would be “in addition to existing crude,” and “would account for an approximate 0.1 percent increase in global GHG emissions.”

Irrespective of differences in estimations of the facility’s impact, the end of the crude oil export ban could be a game changer for the Northwest, says Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute and author of numerous reports on industry plans to transform the Northwest into a fossil-fuel corridor. “Lifting the ban is an industry giveaway that makes the [Northwest’s] oil opposition movement more important than it’s ever been,” he said. “The region will choose whether to become a globally significant shipping hub for crude oil or a thin green line that charts a course toward climate protection.”

Resistance to Energy Projects in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has mounted a preventive and often successful defense strategy that has kept many projects – coal, liquefied natural gas and oil – from moving forward. SSA Marine initially applied for permits to build the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal in 2011. The project remains on hold over an evaluation of health impacts associated with coal dust. Shell attempted to fast-track an oil train facility on Washington’s northern coast in 2014. But after legal appeals the county required the oil giant to undertake a full environmental impact statement. Shell countersued but the court rejected the suit. Meanwhile the Swinomish Indian Tribe is suing BNSF, the railway that would transport oil trains to the site, arguing that large-scale oil train movements would violate the terms of an easement that the tribe granted to the railroad.

In fact, Cascadia, the region that includes Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia, has earned a reputation as a place where energy projects go to die, as de Place wrote in a Sightline article entitled “The Thin Green Line Is Stopping Coal and Oil in Their Tracks.”

The outcome for Tesoro’s proposed oil-by rail terminal is uncertain, but what is clear, says de Place, is that “we can create the political momentum. We can change the nature of the incentives that politicians respond to. And when we create those incentives, when we start the parade, they’ll get to the head of the parade and lead on our behalf and deny these projects.”

The Struggle Ahead

One person will ultimately decide whether to deny or approve the proposed oil-by-rail terminal and that’s the state’s governor, Jay Inslee. Inslee is considered astute about the urgency to invest in clean energy alternatives; he traveled to Paris to show the state’s commitment to combat what he calls “the scourge of climate change.” But he’s been unable to gain legislative approval for his centerpiece cap-and-trade plan to charge for emissions from oil refineries, power plants and fuel suppliers. Moreover, his special assistant on climate and energy, Keith Phillips, recommended holding off on amending the state’s carbon limits, which haven’t been revised since 2008, until after Paris to “take advantage of new information on necessary reductions and allocations.”

But the landmark Paris agreement wasn’t so much about legally binding emission reductions as it was about shoring up groundswells of local clean energy and energy efficient projects all over the globe. This power, says KC Golden, interim chair of, who was at the global climate summit, is evolving and is what spurred virtually all the world’s governments to pledge to leave behind fossil fuels that have been the mainstay for economies the world over and are controlled by some of the most powerful corporations and nations in history.

To reach that pledge, negotiators named 1.5 degrees Celsius as a goal for the eventual maximum temperature rise. This achievement is a testament to nonstop campaigning by grassroots organizers, developing and island nations and the climate justice movement, says Golden, who is also a senior policy adviser with Climate Solutions, a regional nonprofit organization that promotes practical solutions to global warming. Historically, 2 degrees has been the redline or benchmark for catastrophic climate change. As it is, “there’s a very significant gap between emission reduction commitments countries have on hand which get you somewhere north of 3,” said Golden, and “where we need to get to before we wreck the planet.” Meanwhile, the gap between 1.5 and 2 degrees, he said, “is the difference between existing and not for a lot of low-lying island nations,” something most climate and environmental justice activists appear to agree on.

The Obama administration knew it couldn’t get a meaningful climate policy through Congress.

Still, while “independent initiatives” is where many believe the locus of power is evolving, political leadership on the subject, especially in the United States, is defined by the fossil fuel industry. The reason Paris didn’t go far enough, in part, is because the Obama administration knew it couldn’t get a meaningful climate policy through its own national legislative body. Then it capitulated to industry by lifting the 40-year-old export ban on crude oil barely before the ink was dry in Paris. The action leaves cities, states and municipalities responsible for holding off what Golden calls “the last gasp, the death throes of an industry we’ve got to overcome.” The Northwest likes to believe it’s a leader in the clean energy economy, but now, unwittingly, he said, “we also have a role in preventing the advance of the fossil fuel economy.” Tesoro’s proposed terminal is a last-ditch effort to sink enough capital into a dying model, he added, but “we just don’t have a dime or a minute to waste on that stuff anymore.”

Public hearings about the proposal to build what would become North America’s largest oil-by-rail terminal will continue in Vancouver, Washington, on January 12 and in Spokane on January 14. After that the public has until January 22 to submit written testimony which can be submitted via the Columbia Riverkeeper’s website or via the official Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) EIS website. In late January, the review process will enter a kind of trial proceeding, in which opponents and proponents will face off before EFSEC, the state agency responsible for making a recommendation to Governor Inslee. The process could play out for much of 2016.

Emily Johnston, an organizer with 350 Seattle, rallied climate justice activists in a recent post, writing that “if all the oil and gas in the Bakken fields and coal in the Power River Basin are extracted for burning there’s not a chance that the planet will stay below the 1.5 degrees C maximum temperature rise needed for a stable climate.” Meanwhile, the climate is anything but stable. Freak storms in the Atlantic over the winter holidays saw 50-degree warmer temperatures at the North Pole and on Christmas Eve it was 75 degrees Fahrenheit in New York. There were tornado and blizzard warnings in Texas; severe flooding in the Midwest, the UK and South America; and wildfires across Spain and Australia.

It seems clear that the Pacific Northwest and climate justice activists worldwide have their work cut out for them.

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