Fights Over Northwest’s Crude Oil Future

oil trainCould Oregon’s commitment to sustainable and renewable energy production be going up in smoke? Thanks to the lifting of an oil export ban in December 2015 that prevented US companies from exporting crude and lightly refined oils, the dream of green is now confronted with increased fossil fuel traffic up and down the West Coast. The implications of lifting said ban falls heavily on the Pacific Northwest’s shoulders as the oil industry looks to fashion the region into an international export depot.

“We are at special risk because there are so many places in the Northwest that the oil industry wants to build these projects and turn the region into a superhighway for oil,” said energy policy director Eric de Place of Sightline Institute. De Place is recognized as an authority on topics of fossil fuel industry transportation and export within the region. Sightline Institute is an environmental non-profit think tank located in Seattle, dedicated to sustainability in the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest is particularly vulnerable for a number of reasons, but primarily due to geography. Recently North Dakota, Wyoming, and Texas, among other centrally located states, experienced an increase in gas and oil extraction on private as well as public lands. With the bulk of target markets in Asia, the West Coast is the place to be. Considering Canada is also expanding tar sands operations and looking to install pipelines heading south, the Pacific Northwest lands squarely in the crosshairs.

“As a practical matter, from the perspective of fossil fuel infrastructure, it starts in the south at Coos Bay and goes north all the way through Prince Rupert in British Columbia,” explained de Place. We also have oil-by-rail entering the region from the east along both sides of the Columbia River destined for places like Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery.

Even closer to home, the Tosoro-Savage Vancouver Energy Project seeks to build the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the United States right across the river from Portland. While the project had until August to secure all its necessary permits, a public hearing on April 12 by the port commissioners extended that period until March of next year. Should the project fail to produce permits on time, either party can exit the arrangement, which is likely, considering Vancouver City Council is opposed to the entire proposal.

“Port Westward [in Oregon] has been one of those sites in the Northwest that has been a hotbed for fossil fuel industry proposals and so we have seen any number of things crop up there,” said de Place. Despite other projects like the failed Kinder Morgan coal export facility, concern was raised in 2012 when the Fortune 500 Global Partners Co. purchased a failed $200 million ethanol refinery with the aim of converting it to handle crude. However, once oil trains were spotted and word got out, Global Partners decided instead to stick with ethanol for now.

In spite of the decision not to switch from biofuel production, the infrastructure in Port Westward is in place to do so when the opportunity presents itself.

Currently the oil market is a little weak since the frack-boom peaked in 2015. In fact, there is a surplus of articles online attesting that the rush to export this domestic crude could be a bust. However, oil and energy prices are notoriously hard to predict as they are error prone and fluctuate frequently.

The promise of economic benefit is the only thing these projects can really offer. However, promises have largely become a form of mollifying concern in this day and age. The Vancouver Energy Project boasts job creation and full-time positions for over 300 people once fully operational. The Savage Company, who will be operating the project, currently claims to support 3,000 employees at 200 locations. That is 15 people at each site, or 20 times less than the Vancouver Project alone will supposedly support. Don’t forget the ethanol refinery at Port Westward which let go of half their employees before selling to Global Partners three years later.

However, “If the prices come back up, and they very well may, than the Northwest will be in an ideal spot to export crude oil. Because we don’t know what the future holds and because prices can come back up, it is still very important to prevent this [kind of] infrastructure from ever getting built,” said de Place.

Needless to say, the environmental impact of developing such infrastructure is high and the risk of a catastrophic failure is more a matter of time than an avoidable incident. Coupled with the unreliability of the industry in general, why do so many communities support this? As it turns out, they don’t.

“What we have seen happen is that a few port commissions have leased land to an oil project that was interested, but in every single case around the Northwest the local communities are actually opposed to it,” explained de Place.

The Stand Up to Oil campaign website includes a list of 45 “tribal nations, cities, counties, firefighters, and other communities across the region [that] have passed resolutions and made statements opposing or expressing concerns about the dangers of oil trains and proposed terminals.” The list includes a Portland City Council formal written opposition to all project proposals that would increase the amount of oil transported by rail through the cities of Portland and Vancouver. The letter further explains that 15 oil-by-rail terminals are proposed, under construction, or in operation in Oregon and Washington and that there has been a significant increase in crude oil transport in the Pacific Northwest.

Since the oil ban lift passed through Congress in December, there seems to be little we can do at the federal level right now. “While we lost the fight in Congress where the oil industry is dominant, we really do have the upper hand when it comes to local and state decision-making here,” explained de Place. Although it may be challenging to stop the flow of proposals and those seeking to further fossil fuel industry goals, we have the legal authority to stop each project in this region as it pops up through permitting.

“By denying them permits, by denying them permission to build these projects, we can prevent the oil transformation of the Northwest and prevent the offshoring of America’s crude oil—we basically have a huge amount of control over the future of this region,” said de Place.

For example, March saw the failure of the $3 to $5 billion Jordan Cove LNG export terminal and pipeline in Coos Bay. After being stalled for years in obtaining state permits and faced with extended public commenting periods, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission finally decided not to support the proposal. Ultimately it was decided that the suggested benefits would not outweigh the damages it would cause, nor justify the use of eminent domain to install a pipeline through private property.

Despite increased fossil fuel activity in the region, Oregon just passed Senate Bill 1547 requiring energy companies to eliminate coal from their production and serve half their customers’ demands with renewable sources by 2040. This is one more step towards a cleaner, healthier Pacific Northwest.

Ultimately the Northwest is in an ideal position to defend the rivers, estuaries, and beautiful coasts so long as we remain vigilant and stick to our goals of developing sources of sustainable energy. De Place is confident that we can foster sustainability and prevent fossil fuel projects from taking hold in this region. “I think there is every reason we in the Northwest can stop every one from happening,” he said. “It will take a lot of work to do that, but it is definitely something we can accomplish.”

By Anthony Vitale

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