In Our View: Expanding the Port

Commissioners, state will consider environmental risks of crude-oil facility

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Although a proposed crude-oil facility at the Port of Vancouver remains extremely preliminary — don't expect any such plant to open there for at least a couple of years — port officials already have established two commendable policies. First, they properly envision the plan as an excellent way to create local jobs while diversifying the port's cargo mix in ways that will help guard against fluctuations in the economy. Second, they are appropriately concerned about possible environmental risks that could impact the port, the community and the Columbia River Gorge.

We like both approaches. If the risks are as low at Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies are saying, this could be a major boost to the local economy. But we won't know for sure until after public hearings and rigorous permitting processes are completed.

Tesoro has proposed spending up to $100 million on a port facility. Crude oil would be shipped here by rail from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota. The oil would be stored here and shipped to refineries in Washington, California and Alaska. No oil would be shipped overseas. Tesoro already operates facilities in Washington, and company officials are familiar with permitting procedures in the state.

Port Commissioner Brian Wolfe on Wednesday said he is "about 60-40 in favor of the plan so far, but I have serious environmental concerns, especially with increasing petroleum rail shipments through the Columbia River Gorge." Wolfe pointed out that petroleum products already are shipped through the Gorge, and Tesoro has been a Port of Vancouver tenant for more than a quarter of a century, with smaller gasoline and diesel operations. "But I'm waiting to see what we learn during this new application process," he said.

The new crude-oil facility would generate about 250 temporary jobs during construction and 50 to 80 permanent jobs after it opens. The Port of Vancouver could receive millions of dollars annually in gross revenue from the lease. Permitting for the state would be conducted by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, and that task could take nine to 18 months. Rail shipments here could include 120,000 barrels of crude oil per day, potentially increasing to 280,000.

Unlike coal-export proposals that would add 10 to 20 trains daily, the crude-oil shipments would require about two trains per day, perhaps increasing to about four trains daily. According to Wolfe, BNSF officials have said there is a capacity for about 48 trains per day in the Gorge, with about 30 to 35 now running daily.

It helps to know that the Port of Vancouver already handles diesel and jet fuels among its liquid bulk cargo operations, so the Tesoro proposal would not set precedent, only expand current endeavors. The primary task for port commissioners and state regulators is to determine whether that increased capacity carries significant environmental risks.

Regardless how this complicated process plays out, it's good to see port leaders and commissioners aggressively pursuing new operations that offer hope for bolstering the local economy.