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Would a new pipeline ease state’s oil train worries?

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

February 26, 2015 - 9:55 am

By John Stang

As the debates increase over transporting oil by rail, Sen. Mike Baumgartner wants the state to study a potential east-west oil pipeline.

Baumgartner, R-Spokane, introduced a bill Wednesday to spend $250,000 on a study by the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on whether a crude oil pipeline should be installed, and what would be the best route for such a pipeline. The study’s deadline would be Dec. 31.

The study would look at the volumes of crude oil entering Washington — which has five refineries — during the past five years. It would outline the federal, state and local permitting and legal processes needed to build such a pipeline. It would look at potential pipeline routes, and recommend the best one. And the study would list the technical and environmental issues that would need to be addressed.

Baumgartner’s proposal caught both Cliff Traisman, representing the Washington Environmental Council, and Frank Holmes, representing the Western States Petroleum Association, by surprise Wednesday. Neither had seen the bill and both declined to comment on its details. However, Traisman contended: “It doesn’t sound like a realistic or serious idea.” He declined to elaborate.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an east-west Washington oil pipeline was seriously considered. The Northern Tier Pipeline Co. wanted to build a 1,500-mile pipeline from Port Angeles, where Alaska crude would have been shipped, to be transported to Minnesota. Washington Gov. John Spellman killed that project in 1983, following the advice of the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The deal breaker for Spellman was that the pipeline would include a 28-mile underwater section going through Puget Sound.

Baumgartner’s concept would not cross Puget Sound, with Washington’s five refineries receiving crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

Concern about oil trains has risen nationally and statewide after a series of accidents, some involving fires and explosions. Oil pipelines have their own records of leaks, including one along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana in January.

A map of the nation’s oil pipelines shows one Canadian crude oil pipeline stopping at the Washington border north of Bellingham, and the nation’s northernmost east-west crude oil pipeline running from North Dakota to the Montana-Idaho Panhandle border. Some refined oil pipelines pass through Eastern Washington, and some also goes south from the Puget Sound refineries to Oregon.

Reflecting the public squeamishness about the rise in oil train traffic, the Washington Legislature has been working on – and sometimes clashing over — two oil transportation safety bills, one of which is more sweeping than the other.

A draft state report says, “There has been an unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. The amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015.”

Even that amount could increase with construction of proposed new rail facilities and the potential lifting of a federal ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the report says.

Nationally, the number of rail cars transporting crude oil grew from 9,500 in 2008 to 415,000 carloads in 2013. A typical tanker car holds 29,200 gallons. Washington’s five refineries process roughly 24.3 million gallons of crude oil a day, and have the capacity of processing 26.5 million gallons daily.

“We need to move oil across our state and there is a lot of concern about oil-by-rail,” Baumgartner said in a press release. “It’s time to look at a trans-Washington oil pipeline.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Top Story Network interview with Senator Michael Baumgartner

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.