The repeal of America’s ban on oil exports will bring more oil trains to Washington and increase the risk of spills.
Washington state should act carefully in anticipation of a dramatic increase in oil shipments through the region that will result after Congress repealed the 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports last week.
A string of major oil handling facilities was already proposed along Washington’s coast. In light of this major shift in federal policy, Washington state must have a public discussion about its appropriate role.
State leaders need to explain the combined impacts of all pending oil-transportation projects and how they will be magnified by the resumption of crude exports. This public discussion must address concerns about safety, community disruptions from train traffic and impacts to existing industries like agriculture and fishing.
Although there are some economic benefits and jobs created by these oil proposals, it’s unclear how to balance the risks involved and the trade-offs of dedicating so much of the state’s rail and port capacity to them.
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Safety of people and the environment is the most obvious concern.
If approved by state regulators, new facilities and the additional oil trains they bring will significantly increase the risk of spills and fires, with the cautionary tale being the 2013 oil-train derailment that killed 47 in Quebec.
Last year 19 oil trains, each carrying up to 3 million gallons of volatile Bakken crude, moved through Washington state per week. One of them derailed in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood but there was luckily no fire or spill.
Even before the export ban was lifted, the state predicted the number of oil trains it sees could increase to 137 trains per week, if all the proposed energy facilities are built.
Remember, these trains run along Puget Sound and through Washington’s most densely populated areas, including Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Kirkland and Tacoma.
Also of concern is a proposal to build the largest oil-by-rail facility in the United States along the Lower Columbia River, at the Port of Vancouver. This is an estuary of global significance, supporting salmon migrating across the Northwest.
Additional oil-by-rail facilities are proposed for Grays Harbor — one of North America’s four major shorebird staging areas.
Untold millions have been spent restoring and preserving these areas’ essential and economically vital habitat.
Asked how he’ll respond to the ban being lifted, Gov. Jay Inslee said he’ll continue pressing for stronger railroad safety measures and protections for the marine environment. He will decide whether to permit the Vancouver Terminal next year.
His Department of Ecology has already mobilized in response to the rise of crude-by-rail shipments in recent years.
Under the Oil Transportation Safety Act signed in May, the department is drafting new rail-safety rules. They include requirements that the state receive advance notice of incoming oil trains. Assessments are also being done of vessel traffic risks.
But lifting the export ban changes the stakes.
The Ecology Department should quickly update its recent study of oil-transportation risks and re-evaluate the energy terminal proposals that it’s now reviewing, to assess their potential impacts if used for exporting oil.
Inslee could also elevate the priority of this work and highlight the region’s concerns by convening a summit of governors and spill-response managers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia. There’s already cooperation on Northwest spill programs, but now they must jointly prepare for the coming flood of Asia-bound crude.
Congress moved surprisingly fast in lifting the export ban. To prepare for the fallout, leaders in the Northwest must move even faster.