Port of Vancouver commissioners unanimously approved a lease Tuesday for the Northwest’s largest crude oil terminal, saying safety protocols would be hashed out before it begins operating.
The vote allows Tesoro and Savage Services to move forward with plans to build a terminal capable of shipping up to 360,000 barrels a day, nearly half the capacity of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline through the Midwest.
The oil will come by train — up to four a day — from North Dakota and Canada’s Bakken oil field. Hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken field and elsewhere has fueled a surge in domestic production and in crude transfer projects proposed for the Northwest.
Tesoro says the crude would be transferred to barges or ships and sent to 19 refineries in California, Washington, Alaska and British Columbia. It would supplant imported crude and compensate for declining Alaskan production.
The vote forced the three commissioners to weigh environmental concerns about oil hazards, fossil fuel dependence and global warming against the potential for jobs, port lease revenues and a return on the port’s $275 million investment in improved freight access.
Commissioner Brian Wolfe, who has served as both a Chamber of Commerce board member and chairman of a Sierra Club forestry group, called it “probably the hardest decision” he’s made on the commission.
“I’m not sure this is the right venue for us to try to put a cork in the bottle of fossil fuels and climate change,” Wolfe said.
Before the vote, business and labor leaders said the terminal, which promises up to 250 construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs, would be a boon to Clark County’s economy. If it wins permit approvals, it’s expected to begin operating by early 2018 at the latest.
More than 40 critics of the project also testified Monday night and Tuesday, many of them charging the commission with turning a blind eye to climate change.
Vancouver waterfront developer Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, said concerns about oil spills and explosions could threaten financing for his planned 22-block housing, retail and office development along the Columbia River, east of the proposed terminal.
Safety concerns have risen since the July 6 derailment and explosion of an oil train in Quebec that has left at least 47 people dead or missing.
On Tuesday, officials with terminal operator Savage and BNSF Railway said their strong records show they’ll operate the project safely.
The 18-month permit review process will include safety reviews and public comment, commissioners noted.
Port officials said they’ll negotiate a safety plan with Tesoro and Savage once state and federal permits are approved, detailed designs are completed and construction begins. The commission will have to approve the plan for a terminal to operate.
Opponents asked for a delay so the port could hash out safety up front. Canadian authorities are still investigating whether Bakken crude, which may be more explosive than other varieties, contributed to the Quebec tragedy.
The port, banking on $45 million in lease revenues from the project, will be in a poor position to defer terminal operations if the safety plan has holes once construction has begun, said Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper’s conservation director.
Opponents also questioned the commission’s quick vote, which came roughly 12 hours after the public hearing ended Monday night. The commissioners said they discussed the testimony in closed session after the hearing.
And opponents criticized the port for refusing to make the lease publicly available.
Port officials refused to release the draft in advance of the vote, then required a public records request to obtain the approved lease afterward. On Tuesday, the port said it couldn’t quickly release the document because the requests have to go through the port’s “official” process.
21st Century oil
Such controversies are likely to persist, with oil train traffic surging nationwide. In 2008, the largest U.S. railroads carried 9,500 carloads of crude. Last year the total ran to more than 200,000.
The Northwest is jumping in fast, after the first oil train arrived late last year. Two Washington refineries are already receiving oil trains, as is a former ethanol plant near Clatskanie, Ore. Three other Washington refineries plan to receive the trains, and four other terminals are proposed for Washington ports.
If all 11 projects go forward, they would bring in roughly 720,000 barrels of crude a day, the Sightline Institute in Seattle projects, requiring up to 20 train trips, full and empty, each day. The full trains would likely head through the Columbia River Gorge.
So far, the Port of Vancouver project would be by far the largest, with $75 million to $100 million in investment and six tanks with a total capacity of 2.25 million barrels.
The project next moves to permitting, with a full environmental impact statement and state permits overseen by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Gov. Jay Inslee would also have to sign off.
Serres, of Columbia Riverkeeper, said opponents will shift their focus to Inslee and the permit reviewers.
“The question is, are they going to take these concerns seriously,” he said, “or are they going to blow past them like the port did?”
Commissioner Nancy Baker said she would “lose a number of friends” over her yes vote.
But, she said, “If we don’t do it, someone else is going to do it.”
Commission President Jerry Oliver was least conflicted about the vote. The port already safely handles hazardous projects, including sodium hydroxide, jet fuel and diesel, he said.
The recent resurgence in domestic production will keep oil sale proceeds in the United States and boost U.S. industry, Oliver said.
“The 21st Century,” he said, “is going to be very much the American century.”