Just at a time when our state and local governments are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, Washington ports are becoming more complicit in the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. Packed crowds at recent hearings have focused on planned coal export terminals, but less media attention has been paid to the growing connection of our ports to Big Oil.
If you like the coal trains, you’ll love the oil trains.
The oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin is reverberating throughout the country. The process of “fracking” (or the hydraulic fracturing of bedrock with water and chemicals) has recently made that state No. 2 in U.S. oil production, after Texas.
The oil boom has been a social scourge, with housing shortages, prostitution in “man camps,” displacement of Fort Berthold tribal members and endless traffic of chemical and water trucks. Fracking has also been an environmental disaster, lowering and contaminating water tables; yet the process is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In September, a North Dakota pipeline spilled at least 20,600 barrels of crude oil into a wheat field. In July, an oil train from North Dakota exploded in a Quebec town, killing 47, and a second train exploded in Alabama this month. The Federal Railway Administration is now investigating whether Bakken crude is more flammable than other oil.
Given fracking’s track record, why are Washington public ports enabling Big Oil to expand in North Dakota? Our own Port of Olympia is unloading 1.5-ton “super sacks” of ceramic-coated proppants, which prop up the weight of the shale so that oil can be fracked (less profitable natural gas is simply burned off). The port imports the proppants from China, and ships them via rail and truck to North Dakota.
The port is storing so many proppant sacks that it has run out of space in its single warehouse, and now plans to build a new one, spending $2.7 million in port reserves and a recent port bond issue. The Olympia Confronting the Climate Crisis group and winning port commissioner candidate Sue Gunn, oppose the warehouse plan as tying our local economy to the boom-and-bust cycle of fossil fuel extraction.
Just as port cranes were built for Russian cargo shipments that never materialized, a new warehouse could end up empty after North Dakota’s inevitable oil bust.
As the Port of Olympia sends fracking supplies to North Dakota, the ports of Vancouver and Grays Harbor propose to receive rail shipments of fracked oil from North Dakota.
Up to 50 oil trains a month, each 1.5 miles long, would supply three oil terminals in Aberdeen alone. Bakken oil would be loaded from 21 new tanks into enormous Panamax tankers, next to key migrating bird habitat in Grays Harbor.
The Citizens for a Clean Harbor group — which previously defeated an Aberdeen coal export terminal — highlights traffic tie-ups and potential oil spills along the train route, a “rolling pipeline” through the Columbia Gorge and southern Thurston County. A lawsuit by the Quinault Nation and environmental groups, who are also concerned about the effects of an oil tanker spill on local fisheries and shellfish beds, convinced the state Shorelines Hearing Board on Oct. 10 to revoke permits for two out of the three oil terminals, pending a more thorough environmental review.
Shipping is the Achilles heel of the fossil fuel monster. The energy industry needs to ship extraction equipment from ports to its oil, gas and coal fields, and to ship the fossil fuels back to ports for the global market. The industry knows its shipping routes are vulnerable to alliances of environmentalists, fishers, farmers, ranchers, and Native nations, who are starting to coordinate campaigns to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.
Efforts to curb greenhouse gasses will be moot if our fossil fuel addiction continues to grow in Alberta, Montana, North Dakota and beyond. Olympia can act locally to help roll back global climate change by stopping shipments of fracking supplies from our port. The least we can do is catch up to the environmentally minded citizens of Aberdeen.
We can demand that our port commission ship in more wind-turbine blades, rather than fracking supplies that will hasten climate change and rising seas — which, ironically, threaten to inundate the port itself.
Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a member of the faculty in Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College. He is co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012).