In Our View: A Difficult Balancing Act

Port commissioners' decision is not the final call on oil terminal

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For many years, Port of Vancouver commissioners have performed reasonably well in balancing the difficult demands of environmental concerns and economic development. We see no departure from that rational approach in the commissioners' unanimous approval Tuesday of an oil terminal lease.

To the many environmentalists who are outraged by this decision, we would point out that no oil terminal — per se — was approved. The project itself could be more than a year away from final approval, and that green (or red) light will be turned on by two sources more powerful than the Port of Vancouver. First, the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council must make a recommendation supporting the proposal, and then it must be approved by Gov. Jay Inslee. We wouldn't assume either of those sources is blindly supportive of more oil terminals in the Northwest. Inslee, in particular, has shown himself to be no rock-solid friend of the petrochemical industry.

There is no doubt that the port commissioners' decision was controversial. But the unanimity at which it was arrived is not to be ignored. All three commissioners -- especially Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker -- have repeatedly voiced concerns about the risks involved in transporting to and from the port up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day. In view of the fact that other agencies with greater expertise and more power will review this project, the commissioners' decision to move forward is understandable.

The commissioners are charged with other duties as well, among them creating jobs. Next to this project's risks to the environment and public safety, the commissioners also studied the local impact of 250 temporary construction jobs, about 120 permanent jobs and about $45 million in port revenue over the next 10 years.Are those gains worth the risk? Environmentalists say no, but it's important to remember that this project -- as proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies -- plows no new ground. Rather, the oil terminal would expand on the fuel-industry operations that have been under way at the port for many years, just as it would increase the number of oil trains that have been brought through the Columbia River Gorge for years.

This, then, is not so much a full-speed-ahead or a permanent-prohibition choice. It's a matter of balance. Can these decades-old operations be expanded at a rate that is acceptable in the overall responsibility to balance environmental and economic-development interests? That question was not answered on Tuesday. It won't be answered for many more months, and the answer likely won't come from a local authority.

Twice this year (April 24 and July 11), Columbian editorials have stressed a cautious approach to expanding fuel operations at the Port of Vancouver. That call for intense scrutiny and widespread public involvement remains as strong as ever. And even though no formal, final project approval came down Tuesday morning, we accept the decision made by the port commissioners as they continue with their difficult balancing act.