A shifting U.S. energy landscape has state lawmakers in Olympia taking a renewed look at the transport of oil through Washington railways and waterways.
For at least two bills that have emerged early in the 2014 legislative session, the conversation is being driven in part by a proposed oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver. It's there that Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build a facility capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day, to be shipped on the Columbia River en route to U.S. refineries.
House Bill 2347 would tighten rules for oil tankers on certain state waters, and stiffen penalties for oil spills that result from negligence or recklessness. It would also direct the state Office of Financial Management to conduct a study of the state's capacity to respond to oil train accidents.
Among the bill's co-sponsors is Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. Wylie, a former risk manager, said the Tesoro-Savage plan played into her decision to sign onto the bill. She pointed to concerns about the volatility of crude headed to Vancouver from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, and how officials would prevent potential mishaps.
"There's just so many unanswered questions," Wylie said.
A series of high-profile oil train derailments and explosions since last year have only amplified the debate around oil transport. A huge increase in oil production in North Dakota could lead to more and more of it traveling through Vancouver and the Northwest.
The bill focuses largely on three areas: Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. Its chief sponsor, Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, told the House Environment Committee last week that the bill is more about asking questions than providing answers.
"We have this rapidly changing environment in terms of domestic energy production. On the one hand, that is a huge success story in these last five years," Farrell said during the hearing, which was broadcast online by TVW. "On the other hand ... that means we need to really take a close look at the gaps in Washington state regulations."
Cliff Traisman of Seattle-based Washington Conservation Voters was first to testify in favor of the bill.
"The public wants to know who's in charge of this rapidly changing environment," Traisman said. "I think the answer is no one."
Under the Tesoro-Savage plan, oil would likely be transported to the Vancouver facility on BNSF Railway tracks. BNSF representative Johan Hellman touted his company's safety record at the hearing, but said the railroad opposed the bill based on requirements that it disclose data about its loads and locations. Such a rule would force railroads to release proprietary information and lead to security issues, Hellman said.
Railroad safety bill
Another bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. It would require all trains in the state to be operated by at least two "qualified crew members." No such requirement exists today.
"This legislation emphasizes stronger principles for railroad safety - both for crew members on passenger and freight trains, and for communities and neighborhoods in which these trains travel," Moeller said in a statement. "The oil-train terminal that some people are proposing for our own Vancouver area certainly brings us a huge new impetus to this discussion."
House Bill 2811 has not yet been referred to a committee. Through a spokesman, BNSF declined to comment on the bill.