Oil terminal foes ask port to cancel lease agreement

Some 200 people signed up to weigh in on project

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

Published:

 

Public meeting

What: Port of Vancouver meeting and possible vote on oil terminal lease amendment

When: 1 p.m. Friday

Where: Port offices, 3103 N.W. Lower River Road.

Public comment will not be taken at Friday’s meeting.

The companies behind the nation’s largest oil terminal proposal were asking for some life support for their project on Tuesday, but many people had a different idea.

“You now have an opportunity to let it die a natural death,” Vancouver’s Sharon Miller told the Port of Vancouver’s three commissioners at a daylong marathon hearing that attracted far more terminal opponents than supporters.

Port CEO Todd Coleman set the tone for that possible death of the terminal with his recommendation that the commissioners reject a contract change that would increase the prospect of the Vancouver Energy project’s survival. The commission appears split on that contract change, with one in favor, one opposed, and one undecided.

“I have never been put in a position in 15 years at the port where I am unable to meet the needs of the commissioners,” Coleman, one of the oil terminal’s biggest supporters, told the commissioners before the start of public testimony. “Part of my job is to understand what your diverse interests are … and to find a path through the maze. On this one, I give up. I can’t find that path.”

Vancouver Energy General Manager Jared Larrabee said later that the company put out what it thought was “the right proposal” to eventually get the 360,000-barrel-per-day terminal built.

“We believe there is a path forward,” he said. “Fundamentally, we’ve been partners (with the port). We fully plan to continue that.”

Oil terminal opponents showed up in droves Tuesday at Clark College, where they told commissioners to reject a lease amendment that would let Vancouver Energy take more time getting state approval. Many also urged the port to go one step further and end the lease for the rail-to-marine terminal, which the port can now do without penalty.

“You don’t always have an opportunity to … change the direction of where you’re going,” said state Rep. Sharon Wylie, a Vancouver Democrat who urged the port to deny the lease amendment. “This decision is one of those opportunities.”

About 200 people spoke at the lease hearing, which ran from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Vancouver Energy is asking to extend its permitting deadline for two years, among other cost-saving changes. The company argues that the state process was intended to take just a year; the project was first proposed in 2013. Under the current lease, the company’s costs rise dramatically Aug. 1 for a piece of land that likely wouldn’t see construction start until next year, if the project is approved at all.

Terminal supporters, pushing the prospect of hundreds of jobs and millions in economic windfall, urged the port not to abandon the project.

“I see no reason to go back on that now,” said David Winkler, a Vancouver member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “What kind of message would that send to business?”

The port’s three commissioners are expected to decide on the lease amendment at a meeting on Friday. Port staff last week recommended rejecting the changes.

‘Process is broken’

Coleman said he remains in support of the project but pointed out problems with the process.

“Is three years enough?” he asked. “We also question whether the process is broken. We often see projects in Washington get stuck in quagmires. We need to do a better job of getting to yes or no faster.”

It is likely that Commissioner Brian Wolfe will cast the deciding vote on Friday. He has said he isn’t sure how he’ll vote on the amendment. Commissioner Jerry Oliver appears in favor of the project and Commissioner Eric LaBrant opposed.

Should the lease amendment fail, port staff have not worked on a counteroffer, and it is not clear what steps either side might next take.

The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is finalizing its environmental review and preparing for five weeks of adjudication on the project this summer. Eventually it will deliver a recommendation on the project to the governor, who gets final say on the terminal. That decision could take the process into next year.

Vancouver Energy and its supporters have maintained they can operate the terminal in a “safe and environmentally responsible” way, and the evaluation council and the governor should get to make their decisions.

“Emotion, controversy and politics — none of those change the need to follow the process,” Larrabee told commissioners.

Officials from Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., the companies behind the Vancouver Energy venture, made a detailed pitch for the project Tuesday, pointing to an increase in U.S. energy independence and the rising demand at West Coast oil refineries.

But as the sea of red shirts and wiggling fingers of the opposition showed, terminal supporters were outnumbered.

Opponents jumped on everything from rail safety to the risk of spills, climate change and other environmental concerns that have been raised repeatedly since the project was proposed three years ago.

Longview’s Diane Dick pointed to the recent oil spill on the Columbia River near Kalama.

“That was just two barrels, and it spread 30 miles,” she said. “We cannot afford even a minor spill. The oil terminal project is folly.”

The scene on Tuesday was similar to the lengthy hearings held in January by the state evaluation council. Many have blamed Vancouver Energy for delays in that process that have led to this point.

“Three years in, they have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Peter Harrison of Vancouver said. “This project is not moving forward — or moving our region’s economy forward, either.”

Though labor interests, including the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council, support of the project, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been outspoken in its opposition.

Cager Clabaugh, vice president of Vancouver’s ILWU Local 4, said people he meets know about the port because of the oil terminal proposal. That’s not the kind of recognition Vancouver USA should be looking for, he said.

“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to go back to being mistaken with Canada.”