SPOKANE — Last year, a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota chugged across Eastern Washington en route to a Puget Sound refinery.
The oil train was the first for the region, but oil shipments through Spokane could become common in the future.
The state of Washington has received a flurry of applications for terminals that would accept crude oil shipped by rail from North Dakota’s booming shale-oil fields. The crude oil would be refined in the Northwest or loaded onto tankers for other West Coast destinations.
Many of the oil trains would pass through Spokane on their way to Western Washington, including the Port of Vancouver. For Jon Snyder, a Spokane city councilman, that raises questions about spills and public safety, particularly in light of the July derailment of an unattended oil train in Quebec that caused an explosion killing 47 people.
“With so many people living and working by the (Spokane rail) viaduct, it’s important to know all the potential impacts,” said Snyder, who also cited delays at rail crossings from increased train traffic as a concern.
State officials will hold a public meeting from 6to 9 p.m. today in Spokane Valley to discuss the largest of seven proposed oil terminals — the Tesoro-Savage project at the Port of Vancouver. The terminal would receive up to 380,000 gallons of oil daily. Estimated traffic through Spokane from the facility is four oil trains daily, each 100 to 110 cars long.
Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled after requests from Snyder and City Council members Ben Stuckart and Amber Waldref, the Spokane Riverkeeper and other environmental groups.
Tesoro-Savage officials outlined the business case for the terminal in an application letter to Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
Railroads are an attractive option for hauling oil because U.S. crude oil production is growing in many areas that aren’t well served by pipelines, officials said in the letter. On the West Coast, the oil shipments would replace declines in production from Alaska’s North Slope and California’s oil fields, and more expensive foreign oil imports, the letter said.
But Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute in Seattle, said the state isn’t prepared for the capacity being proposed. If all seven proposed oil terminals are built in Western Washington, they could handle 785,000 barrels of oil daily. “That’s bigger than a lot of pipelines,” de Place said.
That volume raises questions about the region’s rail capacity, particularly with the other proposals for coal trains through the Northwest, he said.
In addition, the potential for oil spills along hundreds of miles of railroad track is a concern to both de Place and Bart Mihailovich of Spokane Riverkeeper. Most of the state’s preparedness for oil spills is geared toward pipelines and oil tankers in Puget Sound, which is how the most oil has been moved in Washington, they said. The majority of the funding for the spills program comes from a barrel tax on crude oil brought into Washington by vessels.
A spokesman for BNSF Railway, which would be moving most of the oil, said the company is committed to safety and accident prevention.
Of the hazardous materials transported by the railroad, “99.99 percent makes it to its destination incident-free, without a release,” said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman.