Laura Ackerman works at the Saranac Building in Spokane, a short walk from BNSF Railway’s train tracks.
Oil trains pass her office on a daily basis, and more will roll through downtown if a new crude oil terminal is built 350 miles away in Vancouver, Washington.
Upcoming decisions on Western Washington energy facilities will affect local residents, said Ackerman, oil policy director for The Lands Council. The council is among several environmental groups hosting coal and oil train forums in Spokane and Sandpoint this week.
“Ports in Vancouver and Longview will be making decisions that affect us, because we’ll get the train traffic,” Ackerman said.
One of the forum’s speakers is Eric de Place of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, who has charted proposed oil refinery expansions, new oil shipping terminals and coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon. There are 10 existing or proposed facilities that accept or would accept crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, and three proposed coal export terminals.
“We’re really seeing something that’s unprecedented – the sheer scale of the fuel flowing through these projects,” said de Place, policy director for the think tank, which promotes sustainable development.
The Northwest lies between the nation’s coal and oil reserves and the energy-hungry markets of Asia. That’s giving the region a role in shaping national energy policy through the decisions it will make on coal and oil facilities, de Place said.
“We have an opportunity to make decisions about what the North American energy industry looks like,” he said. “It’s up to the Northwest to decide whether this stuff gets extracted, exported and burned.”
Two of the proposed projects will be up for public review later this year.
A draft environmental study will be out this summer on the Vancouver oil terminal, which would handle up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily, all of which would pass through Spokane on its way to Vancouver from the oil fields in North Dakota. Oil from the trains would be transferred into barges at the facility, for shipping to West Coast refineries. A study paid for by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, the two businesses involved in the project, said the terminal would employ 176 workers and pay nearly $8 million in taxes annually.
Earlier this year, the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council granted the city of Spokane intervention status on the proposed oil terminal, which means city officials will be part of the formal state hearings during the facility’s permitting process. Tribes and environmental groups are also interveners.
Community leaders have expressed concerns about increased oil train traffic through Spokane, Spokane Valley and North Idaho, after derailments caused a string of fiery explosions in other parts of the United States and Canada. Rail officials insist that such events are rare, given the sheer volume of crude oil shipped.
Though oil trains have a higher profile, new coal terminals would also have a significant impact on the region’s train traffic, Ackerman said.
In November, a draft study will be out on the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project in Longview, Washington, which could ship 44 million metric tons of coal annually from the Northwest.
With domestic demand for coal plummeting, U.S. companies are looking for new markets overseas. The Longview terminal is one of several proposed projects that could turn the Northwest into a major exporter of coal. Proponents say it’s an opportunity to ship cleaner-burning coal to Asia, but environmental groups oppose increases in coal exports.
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