EFSEC hearings to begin Monday to review oil terminal

State site evaluation council opens trial-like process

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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Foes of oil terminal project greatly outnumber friends

It’s shaping up to be the trial of the century.

Money, the environment, risk and reward will collide as the fight toward a yes or no for the country’s largest oil-by-rail terminal proposed at the Port of Vancouver reaches a crucial stage.

Starting Monday, members of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will act as jury at adjudication hearings, where groups will present evidence and expert testimony for and against the project.

If that sounds dull, then perhaps the stakes aren’t clear. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., operating as Vancouver Energy, want to bring 360,000 barrels of oil by rail per day to Vancouver and ship it by water to West Coast refineries. The companies promise a thousand indirect jobs, millions in local investment and tax revenues and an increase in U.S. energy independence.

Environmental groups, tribes, cities and others have a different idea of what the project could mean — spills, explosions, environmental degradation and the advance of climate change.

At the end of the adjudication, the evaluation council will process millions of words and a spectrum of emotions into a recommendation for the governor, who will decide to approve the project outright, approve it with conditions, or deny it.

The evidence and testimony awaiting the council’s eyes and ears, then, could make or break the oil terminal project.

What to expect

Adjudication will begin Monday morning with Vancouver Energy and Port of Vancouver lawyers presenting an overview of their case, the opposition and counsel for the environment doing the same, and then the first witness getting sworn in and questioned.

Over the course of five weeks, that will be the routine: Enter a witness, cross-examine, take a break, repeat.

That the hearings are held in an adversarial, courtroom-style setting complete with cross-examination only adds to the drama. Plus, the jury — the evaluation council — will also question witnesses.

More than two dozen groups and agencies will be represented by attorneys at the hearings. Most of them oppose the terminal. The port and Vancouver Energy get nine days’ worth of hearing time, all opponents share nine days of time, and the counsel for the environment, Assistant State Attorney General Matthew Kernutt, gets a day to himself to represent the public’s interest.

The council has also had plenty of homework in reading through the piles of written testimony that will help guide questions and the opinions of its members. The council chair, Bill Lynch, is appointed by the governor. During the terminal review, he serves on the council with representatives from the state departments of Ecology, Commerce, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, Transportation, the Utilities and Transportation Commission, Clark County, the city of Vancouver and the Port of Vancouver.

As part of the massive state review the evaluation council gives major energy projects, adjudication hearings are a chance for the council to gather information outside the scope of the environmental impact statement. That environmental review, despite being a thick document that attracted a quarter-million public comments when it was released during the winter, doesn’t cover every issue the council will need to consider — or every issue Vancouver Energy or its opponents want on the record.

What’s next

Following adjudication, the evaluation council will approve a “findings of fact and conclusions of law,” a document that with the final environmental impact statement will guide the council’s recommendation and give it legal merit. (The governor’s decision on the project can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.)

Though hearings wrap up July 29, the record will be open through Aug. 31 for parties to submit extra evidence and testimony. That’s due to a massively amended application Vancouver Energy submitted 30 days before hearings, the latest it could be submitted under council rules.

Vancouver Energy, in a filing with the evaluation council, opposed giving intervenors more time. But administrative law judge Cassandra Noble, who will facilitate the hearings, wrote: “the clear intent … is to provide not only the council, but also the adjudicating parties and the interested public a fair opportunity to review application changes, determine their significance, and address those changes as they deem necessary in the course of the adjudication. Given the number and extent of amendments to the application in this case, a modest opportunity for parties to submit written testimony is reasonable.”

That will push the project, first proposed in 2013, into its fourth year of review. A council recommendation and final word from the governor may not come until early next year.