Should Columbia River be a 'fossil-fuel superhighway'?

Environmentalist puts different perspective on oil-by-rail facility proposed for Port of Vancouver

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A representative of the environmental organization Columbia Riverkeeper said Wednesday the proposal to build the Pacific Northwest's largest oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, among other similar fossil-fuel projects, poses an essential question to communities along the river: Do we want the Columbia River to become a "fossil-fuel superhighway" or a destination waterfront?

Dan Serres, conservation director for the Hood River, Ore.-based nonprofit organization, which focuses on protecting and restoring the quality of the Columbia River, delivered that and other remarks during a luncheon gathering of the Rotary Club of Vancouver at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay.

Serres' presentation, bracketed by PowerPoint slides, followed a different one given to the Rotary Club on Aug. 14 by a representative of the joint venture to build the oil-by-rail facility at the port. In that delivery, Kelly Flint, senior vice president and general counsel for Savage Companies, highlighted the U.S. oil boom, plans by Savage, Tesoro Corp. and BNSF Railway to safely handle crude and the roughly 110 full-time jobs — filled mostly with local workers — that would come with the oil terminal.

Serres, who was invited to speak to Rotary members to provide balance in evaluating the proposed oil-handling facility, directly addressed several of the points raised by Flint last month. He pointed to Tesoro's blemished workplace safety record, noting the company received the largest fine in Washington state's history for the explosion in 2010 that killed seven people at the company's petroleum refinery in Anacortes. Using methodology provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Serres estimated the combustion of oil moved through the planned Tesoro-Savage terminal would result in about 59.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, or the equivalent greenhouse gas pollution of roughly 12 million cars.

And while it's fair to discuss how many jobs the oil terminal would generate, Serres said, it's also important to evaluate the project's negative impacts. "What's the opportunity cost?" he said.

The opposing remarks made by Serres and Flint in just the last several weeks foreshadow the larger public discussion to come: The Tesoro-Savage plan — designed to handle as much as 380,000 barrels oil per day — must undergo an examination by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC, which would make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, who has the final say. That process could take a year or more.

Serres' PowerPoint slides displayed information on how to contact the offices of EFSEC and of Inslee. The one displaying contact information for Inslee also showed a book the governor co-authored when he was a U.S. Congressman: "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy."

Inslee's ultimate decision on the proposed oil terminal is a "huge responsibility," Serres said, and whether you support or oppose the oil terminal "he needs to hear from you."

'Clean enough to drink'

Several audience members peppered Serres with questions.

Earlier, Serres had said that one reason to oppose the oil terminal, which would handle crude over water and transfer it to ships, was to keep the Columbia River clean and healthy for people and salmon. One of his questioners said Clark County doesn't get its drinking water from the Columbia River.

But communities such as Rainier and St. Helens in Oregon do, Serres said, and the deadly July 6 oil-train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, showed that oil spills aren't necessarily isolated to one place. On the contrary, Serres said, the calamity in Lac-Megantic left an oil sheen stretching more than 60 miles down a river.

"We think it should be clean enough to drink," Serres added of the Columbia River.

Another questioner said it was "lopsided" for Serres to focus on the catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, which killed 47 people and vaporized a large swath of the city's downtown. That questioner asked whether Serres' evaluation includes a full risk analysis that would put the Lac-Megantic wreck into perspective, including accident rates and trends.

Relying on safety data and reports produced by other groups, Serres said, it's his understanding that moving oil by either train or pipeline comes with risk. With pipelines, Serres said, oil spills are bigger but less frequent. With trains, it's the opposite: Spills are smaller but more frequent.

Under the Tesoro-Savage plan, oil would be hauled to the port by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, where oil is extracted by hydraulic fracturing. The oil would be stored at the port and later shipped to U.S. refineries.

The train that exploded in Lac-Megantic was carrying oil from the Bakken site. Both Canadian and U.S. authorities have launched investigations into the matter. The Federal Railroad Administration, for example, is examining the safety of moving oil by rail, including whether chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are corroding tank cars.

Serres highlighted the ongoing investigations as part of his presentation, saying that we "still don't know why (the train in Lac-Megantic) exploded" and that we also "don't know what's in the oil coming out of the Bakken."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com