A chorus of hundreds on Tuesday sang familiar but very different refrains on the oil terminal proposed for the Port of Vancouver.
It’s an economic bounty.
It’s an environmental disaster.
We can do this safely.
We can’t do this safely.
Their discordant voices echoed throughout the enormous Hall B at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. State and local representatives who will play a large role in determining the fate of what would be the nation’s largest oil transfer terminal listened on as the voices continued through the afternoon and late into the evening. More than two years after the Port of Vancouver commission unanimously approved the project, the rhetoric for and against the project remained as heated as ever.
“The likelihood of a catastrophe becomes not a probability but an eventuality,” Russell Freeman told members of the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is performing an environmental review of the rail-to-marine oil terminal slated to handle 360,000 barrels of oil per day.
“If it can’t be done safely, then it won’t be built. We live by the same standards. This project will provide jobs, good-paying jobs,” Mark Holtz said in support of the project that would be built by Vancouver Energy, a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos.
Nearly 400 people signed up to testify at the first of two Vancouver hearings. Terminal opponents hailing from throughout the Northwest vastly outnumbered supporters at Tuesday’s hearing as the terminal, first proposed in 2013, reached a major milestone. Once the evaluation council finishes its environmental review, likely later this year, it will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who gets final say over the project.
In addition to being a fight focused on safety and jobs in the state of Washington, the terminal has become, to some, a battle of national and international scope over the future of fossil fuels and a battleground over national energy policy. It’s a proxy war in which some groups with ties well beyond Vancouver have decided to stand their ground against project backers who are fighting an uphill battle to win broader community support.
Tuesday’s hearing drew comments of every stripe, though it was meant to focus on the project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, released in November. That massive document has been used by opponents and supporters alike to bolster their arguments for or against the terminal.
The risks to life, ecology and property, as evidenced by the environmental review, are just too high, opponents say. An average of four 120-car unit trains of oil per day would travel through the Columbia River Gorge and unload onto cargo ships destined for West Coast ports. That has stoked fears of derailments, spills and explosions.
Port of Vancouver Commissioner Eric LaBrant, a terminal opponent who took office this month, joined the chorus of opposition.
“Residents’ questions have been ignored. Calls for better emission controls have been ignored,” said LaBrant, speaking as president of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association. “We oppose the terminal for these and future problems that would likely also be ignored.”
But supporters say the $210 million terminal can be built and operated safely and environmentally responsibly.
“I urge everyone not to get distracted by misconceptions,” said Ann Donnelly of Vancouver. “No risk has been identified that can not be mitigated by the well-tested tech and good planning that Vancouver Energy is proposing.”
The hearing went on for more than eight hours, with hundreds speaking as individuals or on behalf of organizations to influence the evaluation council. Another hearing will be held Tuesday starting at 5 p.m. at the Event Center.
Those in favor of the terminal, visibly outnumbered, wore green thumbs-up cards and held blue signs championing Tesoro and Savage for their safety record and for the project’s economic potential — about $2 billion in labor income during construction and 15 years of operation, according to Vancouver Energy.
“We see this as an opportunity for the environmental community to partner with Vancouver Energy to create a showcase of … stewardship,” said Rob Rich, who testified at the hearing.
Those opposed wore red and were chastised for waving signs, then their fingers, in response to anti-terminal speakers, showing their evident supermajority at the hearing.
“Our safety is in your hands. We urge you to tell Gov. Inslee to deny the project,” said Jared Smith, president of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
During the hearing’s dinner break, a sea of red filled a cool “barn” across from the meeting hall as a rally brought music and speakers together to protest the terminal.
The environmental coalition Stand Up to Oil said 1,000 people attended the hearing throughout the day.
Oil for the terminal would largely come from the Bakken field in North Dakota, though the environmental review allows for other North American crude to be handled, including tar sands oil from Alberta.
The government’s recent lifting of a ban on oil exports opens the possibility that the oil could move to foreign markets. But Vancouver Energy has emphasized that the oil would be refined and consumed in the U.S. as it promotes the project’s benefit to energy independence.
“The fundamentals haven’t changed,” Vancouver Energy General Manager Jared Larrabee said in an interview Monday. “We still have the need for an outlet and demand on the West Coast.”
Comments will be collected on the oil terminal through Jan. 22, including in person at the next Vancouver hearing and in Spokane on Jan. 14. Comments can also be submitted online at efsec.wa.gov or by mail to Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, P.O. Box 43172, Olympia, WA 98504.
The evaluation council will likely finalize the Environmental Impact Statement later this year and make its recommendation. Gov. Inslee, who is not allowed to comment on the process while it is ongoing, will then make a decision to allow or deny the terminal.