Refineries prepare for N.Dak. oil trains

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BELLINGHAM -- More Washington oil refineries are preparing to accept crude from North Dakota.

BP's refinery at Cherry Point and the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale want to diversify their supply as oil production in Alaska falls from historic levels.

The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes is already taking delivery of crude from North Dakota's fracking boom, and the Shell refinery in Anacortes has announced plans to do so.

The BP refinery is building an almost 2-mile-long rail loop, to be completed this winter, and Phillips 66 is planning its own rail terminal. Phillips reported to Whatcom County that it expects one oil train every two days, on average, while BP expects one per day, at most.

The trains are made up of 100 or more tank cars, Phillips reports, with train lengths of more than a mile. Those trains will travel to and from the refineries on the BNSF line through Bellingham and Ferndale.

Phillips spokesman Jeff Callender said his company hopes to begin construction this summer. Once the rail terminal is done, Phillips could meet as much as 30 percent of its 100,000-barrel-per-day demand with rail shipments.

That would eliminate the need for one tanker per week on Puget Sound, Callender said.

Frank Holmes, spokesman for Western States Petroleum Association, said Alaska produced about 2 million barrels a day at its peak, but that has declined to about 500,000 barrels a day. At the same time, the use of fracking means North Dakota's Bakken formation, now produces some 790,000 barrels a day.

But there are no pipelines to move that oil west.

While trainloads of crude oil pose some spill hazards, Holmes observed that every form of oil transport proposes risks.

Eric de Place, policy director at environment-oriented Sightline Institute in Seattle, said that is true. "I don't want to be alarmist, because oil spills happen on vessels and they happen on pipelines also," he said.

But de Place said environmentalists and public officials should pay attention to the sudden boom in crude oil shipments by rail.