Politics blog

Oil-by-rail bill still alive but caught in partisan fight

Staff writerMarch 10, 2014 

Trains head south by he Chrysalis Inn and Spa

A train passes The Chrysalis Inn & Spa on the Bellingham waterfront, Friday, Jan. 10. Because the trains pass so close to many homes and businesses, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville is pushing for increased safety measures after a spate of freight train crashes that have resulted in huge fireballs from crude oil carried in rail cars.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

This March 10 post has been updated.

Legislation that could provide more state study or disclosure of rail shipments of potentially explosive Bakken oil along Washington railways and waterways is caught up in a partisan dispute over how far to go, and rival measures are in danger of dying. 

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Thursday, leaving little time for the Republicans calling shots in the Senate to work out an agreement with the Democrat-controlled House.

Senate Democrats said Monday a shipping-disclosure measure originating in the House has died. But a proposal to add a 5 cent per 42-gallon barrel fee or tax on crude oil entering the state by rail may keep both chambers’ oil-by-rail measures alive for the waning days of the 60-day session. In the Senate, Democratic Sen. John McCoy of Tulalip and Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale have been negotiating in the Senate with counterparts in the House.

Roughly speaking, Senate Republicans have wanted study by the Department of Ecology and some reporting of shipping data from the oil industry to Ecology, while House Democrats want a broader public disclosure of shipping volumes. Democrats appear to have dropped insistence on new rule-making authority for the environmental agency in late discussions.

As we reported before, the Bakken crude oil is more explosive than traditional Alaskan crude oil, and fatal incidents in the U.S and Canada have spurred actions to improve rail safety. The oil safety issue has risen quickly, and a member of the National Transportation Safety Board has raised questions about the safety of rail transport of new forms of crude oil, while some shippers voluntarily are moving to safer tanker cars.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democrat who leads the mostly Republican Senate majority caucus, is sponsor of the barrel fee bill, which has five other Democratic co-sponsors and seven Republicans including Ericksen. It would raise nearly $1.7 million in the next budget year and $6.2 million in the following biennium, and the fees would be levied on crude oil delivered at oil terminals in Washington. The money would go toward oil-spill responses.

Update: A version of the tax measure, Senate Bill 6567, was approved Monday evening in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

McCoy said at a Monday morning meeting with reporters that the need to act on oil shipments is urgent because the Department of Ecology estimates 17 million barrels of oil went by rail in Washington during 2013, and that figure is projected by activists to hit over 380 million by 2019. “That’s quite a large jump,” McCoy said.

It issue for Democrats is timely and accurate disclosure of shipping volumes and risks to local communities that site along the pathway of shipments. They want state and local spill-responders to have better information than they do today, but oil companies and railways are balking at disclosing too much about their operations (the state has limited reach over railroads anyway because they are federally regulated).

Ericksen has been the lead on the rail safety issue for the Senate Majority Coalition, and he said he’s been willing to go as far as extending the oil-spill protection fees on oil brought in by rail, which now is assessed on Alaskan crude and oil brought by pipeline. He said that is a significant compromise.

“What we’re trying to do is protect people along the rail lines. … That’s the thing we can get accomplished this year if people will focus. If they don’t, it’s going to be very hard,’’ Ericksen said last week.

Ericksen also contended environmentalists were trying to also get disclosure of shipments of fuel by 18-wheel truck. McCoy said Senate Democrats and House Democrats have wanted reporting to DOE of shipments of a list of oil products at 23 facilities, but only where a facility received in excess of 500,000 gallons of fuel during a quarter.

The Democrats’ list includes “crude oil, bitumen, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel oils, oil sludge, oil refuse, biological oils and blends, and oil mixed with wastes other than dredged spoil.’’ Their one-page summary of their goals says facilities would not have to include quarterly reports on transfers from a rack to a tanker truck, because that data is provided by other means.

Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle also contends a study bill is not enough and said House Democrats have compromised by dropping calls for new regulatory authority at Ecology over oil shipments. “We took that off the table. So to say we had a more expansive proposal in the Senate (negotiation) is quite frankly wrong,'' Farrell said.

Farrell said the key now is about the community’s right to know what oil is being shipped along which routes to major facilities. "It's not every single marine filling station. It's the major tankers and major transport pieces that we're looking at …” 

Tesoro, the San Antonio-based oil refinery company that has a refinery in Anacortes, announced early in February it was moving to a safer rail car design “beginning in mid-2014” for shipments of oil and would made rail car design “a part of its commercial considerations with all business partners who may ship crude oil into company-owned facilities.” 

“This includes Tesoro’s refinery in Anacortes, Wash., and the proposed Tesoro-Savage Energy Distribution Terminal in Vancouver, Wash.,” the company said in a Feb. 7 news release that quoted senior vice president Keith Casey as saying: “Tesoro is committed to the safe and environmentally sound handling of crude oil. The safe design of rail cars in crude service is of paramount importance … We’re proactively making these commitments today, before expected changes in future federal regulations, because we believe it’s the right thing to do for all of our stakeholders.”

The two regulatory bills – HB 2347 and SB 6524 – both would appear to die in the Senate without the addition of the oil-barrel tax. HB 2347 had passed the House with at least three Republicans crossing over to join majority in favor.

The oil fee bill was heard on Feb. 27 in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and a vote was pending on the bill Monday in the same committee.

Update: The oil-barrel fee was approved by Senate Ways and Means on a 13-to-1 vote Monday evening, and Sen. Ericksen says it is expected to be pulled from the Rules Committee on Wednesday, the next step before getting a floor vote. Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge said she is still hopeful that elements of the Democrats' proposals for more public disclosure on oil-by-rail shipments can be amended to the tax measure.

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