Gorge Commission looks at oil trains

After not acting on requests in May and June to take a stand against oil and coal shipments in the Gorge, Gorge commissioners promised a frustrated crowd last month it would do so in July.

Numerous speakers asked the Gorge Commission at its June 10 meeting to pass a resolution opposing a proposed oil terminal in Vancouver that would easily be the Northwest’s largest, transporting up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil per day by rail through the Columbia River Gorge.

It would be a type of oil, called Bakken, that is more explosive than typical crude oil, according to research by the Wall Street Journal. A Tesoro spokeswoman disagreed with that analysis.

Several commenters noted that five derailments or collisions involving trains carrying Bakken oil have exploded in the last year, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people. Tesoro Corp., which already runs seven oil terminals nationwide, including one in Anacortes, Wash., has started a joint venture with Savage Companies to build the Tesoro-Savage Vancouver energy distribution terminal, which would be its largest oil terminal operation on the West Coast. The proposal was approved by the Port of Vancouver but is opposed by the Vancouver City Council. It still needs to meet state environmental approval and win the governor’s OK.

A number of other cities, including Seattle and Spokane, have taken stands against proposals for seven proposed oil-by-rail projects in Washington.

Tina Barbee, with Tesoro media relations, said, “We understand that there are concerns about rail safety, and we share those concerns.

“Tesoro and Savage are working closely with the railroad industry and the federal government to ensure the safe transportation of crude oil to the Vancouver Energy Distribution Terminal.” She said Savage has safely operated Tesoro’s Anacortes terminal for two years without incident and Tesoro has operated a petroleum products terminal in Vancouver for approximately 30 years without incident.

She said the Vancouver facility “will make a real difference in reducing the United States’ reliance on foreign oil and improving our nation’s energy security.”

It would reduce foreign imports to the West coast by about 30 percent, Barbee said. “Additionally, the project will bring a significant number of family wage jobs to the area, stimulating the local and state economy.”

Opponents said the Vancouver terminal would increase rail traffic so much they are concerned that emergency vehicles and commerce would be impacted by long wait times as trains go by.

If all seven proposed oil terminals in Washington were approved and operating at full capacity, they would add an estimated 11 loaded mile-long trains per day to the Northwest’s railway system, according to a paper by Sightline, a Seattle think tank. The state already has three terminals. Traditional methods of delivering oil are via pipeline, but the growth in U.S. and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and oil transport by rail — a “pipeline on rails” opponents say — has increased from just 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013.

Gorge Commission Chair Jim Middaugh said he wanted to take a stand, but wanted it to “make a difference.”

He wanted to develop a legal strategy to impact the companies seeking to haul oil and coal through the Gorge.

He felt the community would be better served by the commission doing research on its options and coming back with a proposal in July. The board agreed.

Ken Ferguson told commissioners he grew up hunting and fishing in the Gorge and urged them to take a stand against it becoming a “fossil fuel and carbon corridor.”

The Vancouver terminal would be receiving crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. The vast oil field was long considered too expensive to extract, but new methods, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made it financially feasible.

Federal officials speculate the oil‘s explosive nature is either from particular properties of the oil or the fracking process.

Tesoro’s spokeswoman, Barbee, said, “The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and North Dakota Petroleum Council have both released independent analysis of Bakken crude oil, indicating that it does not pose risks that are significantly different than other light crude oils or flammable liquids authorized for rail transport.”

Bakken producers have also reported a large amount of corrosion in tank cars and have determined pressure inside rail cars from the gas in Bakken crude — which has the highest pressure of 90 types of oil tested, the Wall Street Journal found — would likely exceed federal safety standards. The rail industry itself wants oil hauled only in newer, safer rail cars. Currently, only 15 percent of rail cars meet the new standard.

Tesoro’s Barbee said the company has “committed to only receiving CPC-1232 or newer crude oil railcars” at the Vancouver facility. These are certified to transport crude oil and provide additional protections over older pre-October 2011 design DOT-111 cars, she said.

All Tesoro railcars used for crude oil service in Washington are CPC-1232 compliant, she said.

But commenter Michael Lang, conservation director for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said a rail explosion in April in Virginia involved the CPC-1232 rail cars, and the train was only going 25 mph, well below the 40 mph at which officials estimated the tanker cars would be safe.

Don Steinke told commissioners, “This crude can be lit with a spark and the rail industry says none of the cars are safe.”

Lang said 189 million tons a year of fossil fuels were being transported in the Northwest and the Gorge is the only sea level route through the Cascades, so most of it will come through here.

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rschalow 4 years, 5 months ago

Maybe we’ll lose Velva, or Harvey, or Mandan. Maybe chunks of Spokane, Wash., or Albany, N.Y. And more humans. Is that viable?


Bottom line: Make the producers remove the natural gas liquids (NGL's), and volatile gases, and Bakken oil trains stop exploding.


shadowjay 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd rather not see this happen as oil cars are a disaster waiting to happen. We already have pollution from the coal carried on trains. I was driving parallel to a train on the WA side recently and my car was pelted by the coal blowing out of the open top cars in the strong Gorge winds.


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