Thanks to well-organized and vehement resistance to planned coal export terminals throughout the Northwest, significant victories continue in the fight for healthy communities and clean air and rivers. Resistance to oil trafficking is beginning to coalesce but activists opposing oil by rail have a longer and much more difficult road ahead.
COAL ON THE DEFENSE
Of the six coal terminals that were proposed for Oregon & Washington, three have been withdrawn. Proponents face unprecedented opposition from tribes, business owners, public health professionals, farmers, conservationists, elected officials, and families along the rail lines.1 Falling coal prices in Asia haven’t hurt the campaigns against coal exports either.2
On April 19, after years of hedging, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber proclaimed emphatically that “It is time to once and for all to say NO to coal exports from the Pacific Northwest. It is time to say YES to national and state energy policies that will transform our economy and our communities into a future that can sustain the next generation”.
At the same time, however, the Governor claims to lack the authority to do much about the darn coal terminals right now:
“Unfortunately, Oregon law is more limited (than Washington State) in terms of what we can consider in reviewing large-scale projects such as the proposed Ambre coal export facility. I assure you, however, that we are carefully reviewing all of the issues under our authority, and that I will do all that I can within the context of existing Oregon law to ensure that we do not commit ourselves to a coal-dependent future.
“Furthermore, I have asked my staff to develop proposals for the 2015 Oregon Legislature that, going forward, will assure that there is a comprehensive public review of the costs and benefits of significant development proposals like the coal export facilities now on the drawing boards…”
So Governor Kitzhaber has proposed to propose a new and comprehensive statewide environmental law.
“Oregon law is only limited if you interpret it narrowly”, quips Nicholas Caleb, an attorney, professor at Concordia University, and presently a candidate for Portland City Council.
The question remains whether new and comprehensive statewide environmental laws are necessary in Oregon or whether the Governor could exercise significantly more authority to halt coal within Oregon’s existing legal framework.
The full text of the Governor’s address can be viewed here.
Three coal terminals are still under consideration in the Northwest:
- Morrow Pacific Project (aka Boardman)
Ambre Energy of Australia is pushing this two-port plan to transport 8.8 million tons of coal per year by rail from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming by rail to Boardman. From there, coal would be barged down the Columbia River to a port near Clatskanie, Oregon, where it would then be placed on ships bound for Asia.3 Both ports would encroach on sensitive salmon habitat. Ambre has refuted tribal claims to fishing rights near the site. It’s the smallest of the three plans left standing but the closest to being fully permitted. Air quality, water quality, and construction stormwater permits were approved in February, 2014 by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.
What’s Next: The project still must receive permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a wetland fill removal permit from the Department of State Lands (DSL). Governor Kitzhaber was pushing the DSL to reach its final decision by May 31 after months of delays by Ambre. On May 29, however, DSL spokeswoman Julie Curtis “reported that this time her agency asked the company for a deadline extension on its permitting decision to August 18“, according to OPB.
- Millennium Bulk Terminal (Port of Longview, WA)
Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the U.S., seek to export 44 million tons of coal per year to Asia from a private brownfield site. A record-busting 195,000 comments were received by Washington State’s Department of Ecology and the Army Corps of Engineers during the site scoping period which ended in November, 2013.4
What’s Next: It’s clear that Washington State has been taking coal proposals far more seriously than Oregon has so far. In February, ECY and Cowlitz County announced that will conduct a sweeping environmental study of this project. The study will include the effects of train traffic from inland mines and greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants in Asia.5
- Gateway Pacific Terminal (aka Cherry Point, Bellingham, WA)
Seattle-based SSA Marine and Peabody Energy want to build a terminal within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. Gateway would export 48 million tons of coal per year. The Army Corps of Engineers and ECY received public input September 24 through January 21, 2013. Hearings throughout Washington and online interaction drew more than 124,000 public comments which are available here. The Cherry Point Terminal was proposed in February, 2012.
What’s Next: As of Spring, 2014, environmental consultants CH2M Hill under the direction of the co-lead agencies, have begun to prepare the draft NEPA and SEPA Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). According to ECY, “The purpose of an EIS is to provide the public and agency decision makers with information on likely adverse effects of a proposed project, as well as reasonable alternatives and measures to reduce those effects”.6
Draft EISs will be made available in 2015 at which point, there will be another open public comment period and public hearings will be held.
The question central to any of these regulatory reviews, is whether the option not to build a project is actually on the table.
OIL ON A ROLL
While activists have been organizing pretty effectively to oppose coal exports, oil by rail has proliferated wildly, driven in large part by an 150-fold increase in the fracking and extraction of North Dakota’s notoriously explosive Bakken crude.7 More than that, enormous oil terminals to export the stuff are being proposed for Clatskanie, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The Lac-Mégantic that derailed, killed 47 people and destroyed half a downtown, was carrying Bakken crude.8
The Oregonian’s Rob Davis reported in April that the volume of oil hauled on Oregon’s rails increased 250 percent in 20139 . Mr Davis writes that a sharp increase in crude shipments along a rail line through Portland, Scappoose, Rainier, and St. Helens/Port Westward are driving the jump. The history goes like this:
“In 2013, 19,065 tank cars moved more than 11 million barrels of oil through Oregon, That’s up from the 5,491 cars that moved 2.9 million barrels in 2012.
“Just a few years ago, almost no oil moved on the state’s railroads. In 2007, railroads moved just 659 tank carloads of oil.
“(The most recent annual) reports from BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific provide the best estimate to date of how much oil is moving around Oregon. Most is brought into the state by BNSF in Portland, bound for an oil train terminal near Clatskanie that loads the oil on barges bound for West Coast refineries. But millions of barrels move elsewhere, passing through the Columbia River Gorge, Salem, Eugene, Bend and Klamath Falls”.
- The Vancouver Oil Terminal
In summer 2013, the Port of Vancouver approved a lease agreement with Tesoro Savage to ship up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil each day along the Columbia River which would make it the largest oil terminal in the Northwest, and would require at least four, mile-and-a-half long unit trains per day according to Columbia Riverkeeper10. Riverkeeper emphasizes that the impacts to the communities along the rail lines would be “staggering”.
Public meetings to vet the proposed Vancouver Oil Terminal were held in October, 2013 by the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSC). Opposition was fierce. EFSC received 31,000 public comments during the scoping process for the study11.
Based on recommendations of the EFSC, the decision whether or not to build the terminal rests in the hands of Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and, ultimately, the public.
The terminal is being pursued by the Savage and Tesoro corporations. Tesoro is responsible for the October 10th pipeline failure which spewed more than 20,000 barrels of crude oil into a wheat field in North Dakota. Also Bakken crude.
- The Port Westward Oil Terminal
“With little public involvement, a company called Global Partners has now started exporting oil from Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon,” reports Columbia Riverkeeper12. Bakken oil trains travel through the Columbia River Gorge, Portland, and St. Helens among many other cities on the way to the export terminal. Now, Global Partners seeks a permit to rebuild a large dock to export more oil.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE OIL FIELD
Given the 250 percent increase in oil train traffic and considering the apparent recent spike in oil train explosions — eight in the past year– sure, the implications for public safety are huge. Even Governor Kitzhaber got on the safety train this month as he called on the federal government to move faster to make trains transporting crude oil throughout the state safer. To his credit, the Governor outlined five areas where he’d like the feds to do more including higher safety standards, oil train tracking systems, and funding for emergency response.
The trains sure aren’t going to go away tomorrow so all these things are good– important, really, when you consider that lives are at stake. But who’s paying for increased inspections and emergency response? We are. Why? So the corporations that are profiting from the “fracking frenzy”7 in North Dakota can continue to increase their wealth? Or are we paying for all this because we believe that the oil industry will in turn provide badly needed jobs in our still sluggish economy?
Making oil trains safer isn’t going to reverse the trend of climate change. It isn’t going to reverse ocean acidification or the melting of the polar caps or sea-level rise or provide the next seven generations with breathable air or drinkable water. Safer oil trains might help to protect salmon habitat from impending disasters, but it’s not really gonna do anything for the fish. Not the Governor, in fact, no politician that I know of is calling for a slowdown or a halt to our increasingly oil-dependent economy.
An economy built upon extraction and consumption is unsafe at any speed. It is up to us, to people who value our natural heritage to change the discussion. And it is up to us to stop the plundering of our natural resources because the corporations and the politicians and the regulatory agencies are not so inclined.