Vancouver opposes oil terminal plan; now what?

Impact of council's opposition will not be known anytime soon

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Vancouver City Council officially opposes Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies' plans for the largest oil-by-rail facility in the Northwest at the Port of Vancouver.

Now what?

The impact of the council's decision, reached early Tuesday morning at the end of a seven-hour meeting, won't be known for months, if not longer.

Gov. Jay Inslee's communications director said Tuesday he couldn't comment about how much weight Inslee may give a resolution calling on him to deny a permit for the project.

By law, the governor can't comment on the city's resolution during the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council's adjudicative process, said David Postman. EFSEC will make a recommendation to Inslee, who has the final say.

Major energy projects can take more than a few years to obtain construction permits. The developer of a controversial wind farm in Skamania County first proposed that project in 2008. The wind farm was given a green light — in a scaled-back form — by EFSEC in 2011, and the project was approved by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2012.

Opponents appealed it. The state Supreme Court upheld the wind farm's approval last summer. Even so, the project has languished.

The council approved two resolutions at the end of this week's meeting, which was attended by about 700 people. The first vote, to formally intervene in the EFSEC process, was what Mayor Tim Leavitt called a "no-brainer." Even port commissioners and executives from Tesoro and Savage urged the council to intervene, a legal maneuver giving the city the right to present evidence and appeal.

The second resolution was a broad policy statement opposing not only the Tesoro-Savage proposal but any proposal that would result in an increase of Bakken crude oil being hauled through Clark County. It passed 5-2. Leavitt and Councilor Bill Turlay voted no. Leavitt said the resolution went too far in singling out a project. Turlay said he would only be swayed by facts, not politics.

Of the 101 people who spoke, two-thirds urged the council to oppose the project, citing safety and environmental concerns. Other speakers told the council to let the EFSEC process play out and not be governed by fear.

Turlay said he didn't have enough facts to sort out what he was hearing from both sides, and he didn't want to make a political statement.

"It's kind of like back in the Old West, Judge Roy Bean said, 'We're going to have a fair trial and hang the guilty bastard.' Now, that's not exactly how I want to present this," Turlay said.

Councilor Bart Hansen, gesturing to his own suit, told Turlay he didn't get "all dressed up for subjectivity."

"People have died. That is a fact. There have been derailments. That is a fact. There have been gallons spilled into the environment. That is a fact," Hansen said.

Turlay said people have also died in airplane accidents.

"Bill, those folks got on the plane. These folks didn't get on the train," Hansen said.

Leavitt wanted to delay voting on the second resolution, saying if the decision was unanimous, it would make a stronger statement. When pressured by Councilor Jack Burkman, however, Leavitt acknowledged that unless the resolution was rewritten to only address general concerns about oil-by-rail, he wouldn't support it.

Hansen served on a subcommittee with Burkman and Larry Smith that was formed in March to draft the resolution. He criticized Leavitt for waiting until 12:45 a.m. to discuss proposed revisions.

"We've heard a lot of testimony," Hansen said. "We've gone through this issue for quite some time. It's like ordering when you go to Burgerville," he said. "You think about what you want when you drive over there, you sit through the drive-through, you think about what you want, you look at the menu, you figure out what you want, and then when you finally get up to order, you know what you're going to do. It's time to order," Hansen said.

Councilors Alishia Topper and Anne McEnerny-Ogle joined Hansen, Burkman and Smith in the majority.

Bronson Potter, the chief assistant city attorney, said Tuesday that the council's resolution opposing the project will be filed with EFSEC and become part of the official record.

Savage's Jared Larrabee, who would be general manager at the facility, wrote in an email Tuesday he's confident the EFSEC process "will show that the Vancouver Energy Distribution Terminal can be designed, constructed and operated in the most safe and environmentally responsible manner."

Larrabee said he's disappointed the council took a position "before having all the information," but said the resolution will have no effect on the EFSEC process.

Some speakers who urged the council to not adopt the resolution said it would give the city a reputation for not being business-friendly.

Mike Bomar, executive director of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, encouraged the city council to "work closely and respectfully together" with the port.

On Tuesday, Bomar said he didn't think the resolution would automatically give the city a bad reputation.

"While I don't anticipate that it will have an immediate impact on the majority of our business growth and recruitment efforts, it sets a concerning precedent that should not be taken lightly," Bomar wrote in an email. "Businesses rely on a predictable, fair and steady process. I am confident the City understands this and will work with its partners to ensure that applicants can trust its processes moving forward."

Aaron Corvin contributed to this story.