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Lawmakers compromise on oil trains

By John Stang

Heavy on trains and pipelines, but no Puget Sound oil spill prevention measures. That about sums up a Washington House-Senate compromise on their competing oil transportation safety bills.

The Senate passed the compromise, 46-0, on Friday. Shortly after, the measure got a resounding 95-1 Yes from the House.

“It’s an above-average bill,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, just before the Senate vote. ”It’s three-quarters of a good bill.”

The legislation covers oil trains and pipelines, and addresses some other oil-transportation safety matters, such as spill-related emergency training and responses and providing information about oil train cargoes and schedules to the public and to emergency response agencies. The new bill also imposes a temporary, three-year oil-tax hike (from the current 4 cents per 42-gallon barrel to 5 cents).

House Democrats had originally pushed for a per-barrel tax of 8 cents, plus some oil spill prevention measures for tanker ships plying Puget Sound — positions they ultimately conceded. Senate Republicans gave ground too, on their original opposition to any oil tax increase at all, and on their no-pipelines stance. Both sides had pushed for improved training and planning by state and local emergency agencies.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle and author of the House bill, said the compromise was made to get some oil train and pipeline legislation on the books. Democrats hope to tackle Puget Sound-related oil-spill-prevention measures in the 2016 session.

Under the new legislation, railroads will have to provide advance notification to emergency agencies about train routes, about the volumes of oil being transported and about where oil trains traveling to western Washington’s five refineries originated. The public will be updated periodically via a website that provides a less detailed look at the oil volumes and origin of oil trains. In order to protect proprietary oil company information, the public data will not be broken down by individual trains and dates.

A similar aggregate rundown on pipelines will be made public twice a year so that the public and state will have information on which to base future regulatory actions.

The bill also requires railroads to report on whether they are financially capable of effectively responding to worst-case accident scenarios. The state will use those financial disclosures to determine whether or not to take more actions vis a vis the railroads’ financial obligations in the event of emergencies.

Environmentalists and environmentally-minded lawmakers were lukewarm about the legislation. “It isn’t a matter of if, it is a matter of when a spill or explosion will happen,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “I am pleased we were able to finally pass meaningful legislation that will help protect our first responders and citizens. It’s unfortunate we could not ensure oil and railroad companies — not taxpayers — are held financially responsible for spill prevention and cleanup.”

“While this bill contains some important steps forward in terms of transparency and public disclosure, it leaves huge holes in the safety net needed to protect our communities and waterways from risks we face today,” said Becky Kelley, president of Washington Environmental Council, in a press release.

No doubt the issue of oil train safety and how to ensure it will be back.


Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

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

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.