We don’t hear much about it in dry land Washington, but our maritime half has steam up over a proposal that would open Puget Sound to more supertanker traffic.
Six hundred tankers and many more barges move through the Sound each year on their way to refineries in Cherry Point, Anacortes and Tacoma. There has never been a major accident or spill. But shipments have been limited since 1977, when then-Sen. Warren Magnuson amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, a bill he had sponsored to protect the Sound’s population of orcas. The whales were being captured for sale to aquariums. That same year Magnuson had also sponsored the Coastal Zone Management Act.
By 1977, there was pressure from oil companies and labor groups to expand the Washington refineries. They found an ally in Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who was slowly working to loosen state restrictions on coastal development. Ray had once been pictured at the wheel of a tanker passing through the Rosario Strait.
Magnuson, otherwise a friend to labor, was intent on safeguarding the Sound. So he quietly amended the Mammal Protection Act by adding a provision that forbid federal officials from approving expansions of docks or terminals where more crude oil might be offloaded. An exception was made for added capacity intended to meet increased petroleum product needs in Washington.
The measure passed the Senate and House in less than a day. It has protected the waters east of Port Angeles ever since.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens would like to change that.
Three weeks ago, the powerful chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee introduced SB1977, which is all of one sentence long: “Section 5 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972(33 U.S.C. 476) is repealed.” Section 5 is the Magnuson Amendment.
According to Stevens, restrictions on refinery operations in Washington unfairly burden consumers farther down the West Coast who pay more for gasoline because supplies are limited. Not a bad point, but he fails to mention that some gasoline refined in the state sails off to Canada, Mexico and Chile. Nor do his comments touch on the fact that, due to pipeline constraints, additional crude shipped into Puget Sound will become additional refined products shipped out. Traffic will increase both ways, and with it the potential for accidents.
Really, Stevens is carrying crude for BP, which wants to expand its Cherry Point refinery, already the largest on the West Coast. BP operates the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope.
The company claims a second terminal at Cherry Point, if used only for exports, would not violate the Magnuson Amendment. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument earlier this year.
Stevens and BP are none-too-subtle about their alliance. The day after Stevens introduced his bill, BP announced it would curtail production at Cherry Point by 10 percent if the Magnuson Amendment is not repealed. How clumsy is that?
Besides overturning Magnuson, SB 1977 has the salutary effect, at least from Stevens’ point of view, of goading Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who was among the Democrats who wanted oil company executives sworn in before testifying before the Commerce Committee earlier this month about high gasoline prices.
Stevens rejected their demand. A week later news reports raised questions about how truthful some of those witnesses were.
Cantwell, who is up for re-election next year, has everything to gain if Stevens persists. Washington residents want Puget Sound’s waters protected. A Republican challenging Cantwell will be tarred by any association with Stevens’ effort. Meanwhile, Cantwell has already written Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., advising him she will use any means possible, including filibuster, to beat back Stevens.
Washington’s delegation in the House of Representatives, Democrat and Republican, convinced leadership there that any attempt to capsize Magnuson would be unwise. And, fortunately, Stevens so far sails alone on SB 1977. His bill has no co-sponsors.
Even The Anchorage Times is scolding Stevens. Would he tolerate a Cantwell bid to regulate shipping in Prince William Sound?
Just a week after Stevens submitted his proposal, Puget Sound’s orcas — the very species the Marine Mammal Protection Act was intended to defend — was designated an endangered species. That alone ought to put the harpoon to SB 1977.
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