The proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil transfer terminal in Vancouver has commanded a lot of attention, and for good reason — if built, it would be the largest facility of its kind in the United States.
But the plan continues to overshadow a smaller proposal that’s approaching a key decision point this spring. The fate of that project now largely rests in the hands of one person at Vancouver City Hall.
Senior Planner Jon Wagner doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.
“You’re making a decision that’s going to impact a lot of people,” Wagner said. “You want it to be the right decision, and a lot of times things aren’t black and white. … It’s difficult.”
NuStar Energy L.P. wants to convert its existing facility at the Port of Vancouver to handle about 22,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The site would receive oil by rail, store it temporarily, then transfer it to marine vessels on the Columbia River.
The Tesoro-Savage plan would put a separate oil-by-rail facility at the Port of Vancouver. But that project would handle an eye-catching 360,000 barrels of crude per day, or about four full unit trains. (Two to three oil trains already roll through Clark County and Vancouver daily en route to other facilities.)
As it pursues its own plan, NuStar received permits from the Southwest Clean Air Agency last year. The company is now asking the city for its approval to convert and expand its facility. NuStar has handled methanol, jet fuel, antifreeze and other products in Vancouver before, but not crude oil.
The city could simply say yes to the plan, approve it with conditions, reject it or ask for a more detailed environmental review, Wagner said. That decision will happen in early April, he said, and will be based on information learned in the coming weeks — not one person’s thoughts. Wagner works in the city’s Community and Economic Development department, led by Director Chad Eiken.
When the NuStar project received approval from the clean air agency last spring, it was relatively little-known. Only a handful of people offered public comments at the time, and the decision wasn’t appealed.
The Southwest Clean Air Agency is limited in its scope, said chief engineer Paul Mairose. The agency approved air discharge permits, and doesn’t delve into land use rules or other considerations, he said. Mairose noted that the NuStar facility is already handling hazardous materials, such as methanol. Bringing in crude oil wouldn’t substantially change things from an air quality standpoint, he said.
“From a perspective of what’s the hazard to people living close by, they’re both hazardous air pollutants,” Mairose said. “The controls that are required for both products are similar.”
By the time NuStar’s plans came to the city of Vancouver, it had the attention of many more residents and local leaders. The company filed a pre-application in September, just a day before the Vancouver City Council approved a six-month moratorium on new or expanded facilities that accept crude oil. The timing of NuStar’s application made it exempt from the ban.
Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen said he’d like to revisit the moratorium, which is set to expire next month. Though Hansen said he’s not aware of any other oil-transport proposals, there are questions about safety and other issues that need to be addressed.
“I haven’t seen the industry make any substantial changes in their operations,” Hansen said.
While NuStar has generally been responsive to questions, plenty of neighbors still have concerns about the proposal, said Eric LaBrant, president of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association. The NuStar site and the port are located in Fruit Valley.
Worries about oil train safety and air pollution have followed both the NuStar and Tesoro-Savage proposals. NuStar’s plan would also require large unit trains to be split into smaller sections before arriving at the facility. That process could pose risks in itself, LaBrant said.
In an email, NuStar spokesman Chris Cho said crude oil would arrive at the Port of Vancouver as full-unit trains, then be separated into thirds for NuStar to handle. NuStar’s expected capacity of 22,000 barrels per day amounts to about a third of a train per day, according to the company.
The Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association is among about a dozen Vancouver neighborhoods that formally oppose the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal. But the neighborhood hasn’t taken the same step on NuStar. Careful consideration goes into such decisions, LaBrant said.
Aside from Tesoro-Savage, “it’s been a long time since the neighborhood took a position to oppose an industrial project,” he said. “The history of Fruit Valley is tied in intimately with heavy industry. Opposing a project isn’t something that the neighborhood is going to just jump into.”
Should the NuStar proposal win approval from the city, it’s unclear when crude oil may begin arriving there. Cho said it’s “too early to speculate” on the project’s timing and costs.
NuStar figured prominently into the debate over Vancouver’s moratorium on crude oil projects last September. The project — and crude oil in general — will likely return to the spotlight if the city council revisits the subject.
“At this point, I think we need to start looking toward the future, and that’s where the moratorium comes into play,” Hansen said. “Do we need these types of jobs in our community? And if so, where do we draw the line?”