Oil Trains Now Delivering Utah Crude to Portland

May 16, 2014 — Tony Schick — OPB

A fuel terminal along the Willamette River is now accepting train shipments of crude oil from Utah, making it Oregon’s second oil-by-rail destination, state officials have confirmed.

Union Pacific trains carry the crude out of Utah, into Oregon and along the Columbia River Gorge toward Northwest Portland. Once in the city, the oil trains are being unloaded at a plant owned by Arc Terminals, according to Robert Melbo, state rail planner at the Oregon Department of Transportation. From there, the oil is being loaded onto ships or barges destined for West Coast refineries. The company has a contract with Chevron, Melbo said.

Investors in Arc Terminals purchased the facility in January with plans to invest $10 million for infrastructure updates. The site has 84 tanks and a total capacity of 1.5 million barrels. It is situated adjacent a BNSF Railway yard in a cluster of petrochemical tank farms between the river and Highway 30.

“We don’t have any idea on the volume,” Melbo said. “But we know that they can actually place about 20 cars at a time at that facility.”

Train shipments of crude oil have been increasing throughout the Northwest, up 250 percent in Oregon since 2012. A former ethanol plant in northwest Oregon near Clatskanie began receiving rail shipments of North Dakota Bakken crude oil in 2012. Trains also carry crude through the state into California and Washington. Several refineries in Washington recently began accepting crude by rail, and a terminal has been proposed at the Port of Vancouver.

Rail lines in the Northwest and throughout the country have been a crucial component in the recent boom in North American oil production, offering flexible routes to a wider customer base for oil extracted in regions like North Dakota, Utah and Canada.

The safety of shipping crude by rail has come under intense scrutiny, though, after several trains carrying Bakken crude derailed and in some cases exploded. Federal data shows more oil — nearly 1.15 million gallons — spilled from rail cars in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined.

Utah crude oil is waxy, heavy and generally considered less volatile than Bakken crude. It has not been involved in high-profile explosions. Its shipment on Northwest rails is a newer phenomenon, though.

“It’s a very dynamic situation in terms of the ability to move this stuff around as opposed to the days when it was pretty much all just in pipelines. And it could go this place or that place and that was about it,” Melbo said.

Michael Zollitsch, emergency response unit leader at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, has said the agency doesn’t yet understand the different types of crude moving through the state as well as it would like, and that heavy and waxy crudes could pose additional challenges for spill cleanup.

Governors in Oregon and Washington have called for reviews of oil train safety, as have numerous legislative hearings. The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a handful of emergency orders designed to make the shipment of crude oil safer, the most recent of which requires railroads to notify states about the location, frequency and makeup of crude oil shipments through their communities.

That applies only to Bakken crude, however. After the federal notice, Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, wrote to the Department of Transportation arguing the new requirements should apply to all shipments of crude oil.

© 2014 OPB


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