SEATTLE — Efforts to transform the Northwest into a fossil-fuel hub for North Dakota's crude, Alberta's oil sands and coal from the Rocky Mountains mean the risks of major spills and explosions in and around Washington state are rising and poised to skyrocket.
Millions of gallons of oil are suddenly transiting the region by train. Barges now haul petroleum across the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River and on to Puget Sound. Oil tanker traffic through tricky channels north of Puget Sound may well increase dramatically in coming years.
"People who are paying attention are rightfully nervous about all of this," said Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the leadership council for the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency leading cleanup of the Sound. "It's just scarier than heck. It makes you want to put your hands over your ears."
The scale and pace of the change can be hard to comprehend.
In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude, the risk of major oil spills in Prince William Sound has plummeted. Oil tankers are safer and now escorted by tugboats. Oil-laden vessels are closely tracked when traveling through bays near reefs and rocks. And the amount of petroleum hauled south from the Valdez oil port in Alaska is a mere fraction of what it once was.
But while a smaller number of tankers offload crude here from Alaska, the odds of a serious accident in this region just keep going up.
• Companies are using new routes to bring in explosive and harder-to-clean-up petroleum by rail - with little of the advanced spill-prevention planning we've used for years to protect us from oil in tankers, and little clarity about what precisely is being transported or when.
• A proposed pipeline expansion in Vancouver, B.C., would bring nearly seven times more oil tankers through a narrow strait west of San Juan Island, just as new studies suggest Canada is less prepared for spills than Washington.
• Even plans to export coal through proposed Northwest ports contribute to oil spill risks, new research suggests. Proposed coal terminals would dramatically increase ship traffic in northern Puget Sound, boosting the odds that oil tankers and barges could collide with other vessels.
"These are really significant changes," said Dale Jensen, with the state Department of Ecology's spills program. "It requires a huge shift in our thinking."
Certainly Washington has a strong oil spill record; even critics say the state is among the country's most prepared for a major accident. Vessel-traffic monitoring and ship navigation have improved here, too, and tankers and most oil barges plying state waters now have protective double hulls.
But if several proposed export and pipeline-expansion projects are approved, so much more ship traffic and fuel would be moving about that the odds of a major spill would be substantially higher than they are today, according to a new study.
The odds of a very big spill in Haro Strait - an area heavily used by killer whales hunting for food - would rise even more dramatically.
"Not since the Alaska pipeline first came online in the 1970s has there been a greater increase in the risk of an oil spill in our waters," said activist Fred Felleman, with Friends of the Earth, who has tracked tanker safety since before the Exxon Valdez spill.
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When Exxon's oil tanker veered off course and hit Bligh Reef 25 years ago last month, it carried 53 million gallons from Alaska's North Slope.
With no extra hull to contain or slow the spread of oil, black goo gushed into the sea, smothering billions of salmon and herring eggs. It coated and killed a quarter-million seabirds, several thousand otters, hundreds of harbor seals and bald eagles and 22 or more killer whales. It matted 1,300 miles of shoreline.
In the decades since, risks of spills near Valdez declined as the state stepped up vigilance and crude sent through the Trans Alaska Pipeline dropped from 2 million barrels a day to just above 500,000.
"There used to be three or four tankers in Valdez a day," said Steve Rothchild, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. "Now we get maybe 20 a month."
Washington state, too, made improvements, and the number of those tankers calling on Puget Sound's five refineries dropped from 285 in 1992 (the earliest records readily available) to 123 in 2013.
But with planned expansion in production from Canada's massive oil sands, and the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline through the American Midwest still in limbo, energy giant Kinder Morgan in December sought permission to expand its pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver.
That would increase the pipeline's capacity by a third, to 890,000 barrels a day. In turn, that would increase oil tanker traffic from its pipeline in Burnaby, Canada, and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca from about 60 tanker trips a year to more than 400, essentially doubling the total tanker traffic through the Strait.
The presence of that much more oil puts the Strait at a "very high" risk of spills, according to one study by Canadian authorities. Another showed that in six of seven simulated spill-response drills by B.C. officials, more than half the oil during a major spill would have remained in the water five days after a hypothetical accident.
"We haven't felt that in the past the standards and capability across the border were as strong as they are on the U.S. side," said Jensen, with the Department of Ecology.
In addition, oil sands petroleum has in previous accidents proved more difficult to clean up than North Slope crude. A former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chemist has argued that oil from Alberta could sink if left on the surface too long, making cleanup virtually impossible.
"We don't really know how to clean a spill of that stuff up," said Kongsgaard, of the Puget Sound Partnership. "You're not going to hear from the cleanup people that we really understand how it behaves at all."
Frank Holmes, with the Western States Petroleum Association, acknowledged that more traffic could add more risk. But he said the companies, the state and federal agencies on both sides of the border are coordinating right now to make sure spill responders would be thoroughly prepared before any pipeline expansion is completed.
He also pointed out that Canadian bitumen, some of which is piped currently to Puget Sound refineries, is often mixed with other petroleum products here, making it less likely to sink.
And Kinder Morgan has recommended "additional risk-reducing measures in its facilities application, including increasing the use of escort tugs to cover the entire tanker route and the implementation of moving exclusion zones to safeguard tankers from other traffic," Bikramjit Kanjilal, who oversees the marine development side of the company's expansion proposal, said in a statement.
But the fact that Haro Strait and Boundary Pass just to the northeast are the most likely place for any serious accident poses a special kind of concern for many officials.
The region's endangered killer whales concentrate in those areas, and "we've seen that they don't move around to avoid spilled oil," said Brad Hanson, a marine mammal expert with NOAA.
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Meanwhile, a dramatic increase in shipping by rail is boosting spill risks - and presenting more safety hazards as well.
As new technology made it easier to tap North Dakota's buried light-shale oil, energy companies eager to reach markets began loading it on trains. About 17 million gallons of this petroleum already works its way by rail to refineries in Anacortes, Ferndale in Whatcom County, and Clatskanie, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia. That number is expected to more than triple by the end of 2014 — and that doesn't take into account projects yet to be approved.
The city of Hoquiam and the Department of Ecology
approved two more oil train projects in Grays Harbor County. While the Shoreline Hearings Board revoked both approvals last fall, arguing the state's review was too insubstantial, more rigorous reviews are now in the works and a third company there also is expected to seek oil train permits.
Meanwhile, the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is considering another proposal along the Columbia in Vancouver, Wash., for a 360,000-barrel-per-day crude-by-rail project, and at least one more oil train facility is proposed to deliver to a Puget Sound refinery.
"It's a big-deal change," said Guy Caruso, an energy adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former head of the federal Energy Information Agency. "When I left government in 2008, North Dakota was producing 150,000 barrels a day. Now it's almost 1 million."
In that time, the amount of oil moved by rail nationwide has jumped from less than 10,000 train carloads a year in 2008 to a projected 400,000 carloads last year.
And this lighter fuel is so much more combustible than others that the growth has sparked significant accidents and close calls.
Last summer, an unattended oil train in Quebec rolled free and derailed, sparking fires that killed 47 people. Another oil train spilled 21 carloads of oil in fragile wetlands in Alabama, sparking fires. Another oil train exploded in North Dakota in December.
"I think we're taking bombs through our cities," Ben Stuckert, the Spokane City Council president, told another legislative panel in Olympia after expressing his worry about elevated tracks bringing dangerous oil trains through his community.
Similar trains already transit populated areas of Seattle susceptible to landslides and earthquakes.
Tesoro, which has trains coming to its Anacortes refineries and wants to build the proposed facility in Vancouver, said last month that it would replace its outdated oil cars with newer, safer models this year.
Still, accidents just since January have prompted congressional hearings, emergency-safety orders from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and a call by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for tougher standards and an overhaul of rules governing oil train design.
For the moment, officials concede the change has come so fast that they and the industry remain ill-equipped to deal with some types of oil train-related accidents or spills.
"The safety regime did not prepare in advance, nor have they responded quickly enough to address the risks," NTSB chair Deborah Hersman told a U.S. Senate panel last week.
The state often has not evaluated spill risks where oil trains are traveling. While Puget Sound has been a focus for decades, the state has not conducted years of spill drills in areas around Grays Harbor and near the churning waters of the Columbia River's mouth, where oil barges only recently started ferrying oil.
"We're looking at changing risks to the environment and to communities and first-responders," said David Byers, with Ecology, told legislators last fall.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told members of Congress that the oil industry has been slow to cooperate with his agency's attempts to better understand how explosive the fuel is. And he and Hersman agreed the rail industry isn't required to have nearly the rigorous spill training and spill-response preparedness expected of oil tankers and pipelines.
"It makes absolutely no sense that we don't have a similar expectation when we have, in essence, a moving pipeline," Hersman said.
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Certainly, many applaud the arrival of these new North American oil resources.
"This is a really good thing — it's true energy independence," said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who authored one of several failed state legislative bills this year to tackle oil spill issues. "We're creating some unique safety challenges with the new modes of transportation, but I think it's (the overall change in the energy picture) great."
Oil industry officials say government and industry are moving to adjust to the challenges.
"The re-emphasis on more crude oil has definitely raised some concerns, and we need to take care of those," said Holmes, with the Western States Petroleum group. "But I think there's a lot of effort, not only on our part but across the nation, to address those concerns."
Others object to the transition, in part because this fossil fuel explosion could help boost climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions.
"It's a legitimate concern," said Caruso, the energy adviser. "These developments — the resurgence of U.S. and Canadian oil and gas - clearly are pushing the fossil fuel era out decades longer. There's no question."
Environmental activists in the U.S. have joined with tribal leaders and Canadian First Nation's groups to try and halt the spread of fossil fuel projects in the Northwest, though some analysts think the tide is too strong to be stopped.
Few dispute that the change comes with risks. The Port of Portland this month announced it would not consider any oil-by-rail proposals until more is known about spill and accident safety. The Seattle City Council asked for a moratorium on new oil-by-rail projects and urged rail companies to restrict oil train traffic in highly populated areas.
And lawmakers of both parties this year attempted to pass competing bills giving the state a better handle on marine and rail oil-spill risks.
The efforts collapsed over partisan differences about precisely how much information energy companies should have to disclose about operations.
For now, a task force of state and federal emergency managers is trying to evaluate and prepare for the risks.
"We've got to get a handle on this," Kongsgaard said. "What we need to ask is, 'What's good for Washington?' "