Legislature should extend oil-shipping fee to rail

The OlympianJanuary 31, 2014 

In this July 16, 2013, file photo, railroad oil tankers are lined up at the Port of Albany in Albany, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has directed state agencies to strengthen the state's oversight of petroleum shipments by rail, citing devastating accidents in Quebec and North Dakota and the expansion of crude oil shipping through the Port of Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

MIKE GROLL — AP

A bill making its way through the Legislature would require oil companies and railroads to inform state regulators when and where 100-car oil tanker trains are passing through Washington. It’s shocking this lack of communication exists, and lawmakers should correct the oversight during this session.

But the bill (House Bill 2347) doesn’t go far enough in specifying who should pay to plan and execute oil spill responses.

Washington citizens have good reason to feel nervous about dangerously flammable light crude oil rolling through the South Sound. More crude oil was spilled from railroad accidents in 2013 than the previous 40 years combined, according to a report from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Three rail incidents in the past six months contributed to 1.15 million gallons spilled last year — not counting the 1.5 million gallons spilled in a Canadian accident that ignited a fireball killing 47 people and incinerating most of a Quebec town.

The state House Environment Committee heard testimony last week that the first oil train traveled Washington in 2012. We now have several oil trains per week, and the environmental think tank Sightline projects nearly a dozen per day if all the state’s refineries start to operate at capacity.

HB 2347 mandates that certain oil facilities provide oil transit information to the state Department of Ecology. It also stiffens safeguards for marine shipments, including tripling the damages for reckless or negligent oil spills in certain waters.

That’s good, but the bill fails to apply the same precautions and damages to oil spilled from rail shipments.

Railroads operate with minimal federal government regulation. They are allowed to develop their own oil spill response plans without any coordination with state agencies.

The state DOE has asked lawmakers for $650,000 in the 2014 supplemental budget to hire five new employees who would create a statewide oil spill response plan. Railroads and oil companies should pay this bill, not taxpayers.

The state collects a 5-cent-per-barrel fee on marine shipments. That pays for oil spill response planning and prevention measures. Lawmakers should extend the fee to rail shipments for the same reasons that justify its application to marine operations.

A representative of the Western States Petroleum Association told the House committee that rail transit information should be confidential to state regulators, not open to public disclosure. He said that’s how it works in California.

Lawmakers might consider his proposal if the rail and oil industries also accept California’s 6.5-cents-per-barrel fee on both rail and marine shipments, and remove the $9 million cap of fees designated to oil spill response.

The cleanup of a catastrophic spill in Puget Sound or along the rail lines passing through the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge easily could cost tens of millions of dollars.

The fast-growing trend of shipping oil by rail demands that lawmakers keep pace by updating state regulations. That should include placing the financial obligation of oil spill planning, prevention and response on the profitable rail and oil companies, not Washington taxpayers.

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