The nation’s public ports, focused on attracting industry and jobs, are largely known as agnostics when it comes to pursuing the commodities they handle.
It doesn’t matter if the shipments are toxic or nontoxic. Ports move cargoes, the story goes. They don’t pronounce moral judgments about them.
However, at least one line of business is no longer necessarily a lock, at least in the Northwest: the transportation of crude oil by rail.
Public concerns about everything from explosive oil-train derailments and crude spills to greenhouse gas emissions and the future of life on the planet are part of the reason why.
In at least two cases in Oregon and Washington, ports decided safety and environmental concerns loomed large enough for them to step back from oil transport. The Port of Portland, for example, eyed as much as $6 million in new annual revenue when it mulled siting an oil-train export terminal, documents obtained by The Columbian show. Ultimately, Oregon’s largest port scrapped the idea because of rail safety and other worries. At one point, it also reckoned that “the public does not readily differentiate between our direct contribution to climate change and actions we enable.”
In Washington, the Port of Olympia adopted a resolution raising multiple safety, environmental and economic concerns. It noted the July 6, 2013, fiery oil-train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people. And the resolution called on the Port of Grays Harbor to rethink opening its doors to three proposed oil-by-rail transfer terminals.
To be sure, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of Northwest ports swearing off oil or other energy projects. Yet public concerns aren’t lost on the port industry. Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, said he worries that putting certain commodities such as coal under “cradle-to-grave” environmental analyses sets a bad precedent that could gum up the quest for other port cargoes.
Nevertheless, he said, “we’re concerned about oil-by-rail transportation.” So much so, the association, which represents some 64 ports in Washington, will soon issue a position paper, Johnson said. It will include calls on the federal government to boost the safety of tank cars, and to upgrade oil-spill prevention and response measures. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board said that assuring the safety of oil shipments by rail would be one of its top priorities for the year.
In Vancouver, meanwhile, critics pressure port commissioners to cancel a lease to build what would be the nation’s largest oil-by-rail transfer operation. Under the contract, Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Companies, a transportation company, want to build a terminal capable of receiving an average of 360,000 barrels of crude per day.
In addition to the political pressure, legal challenges dog the project, too. One lawsuit goes to the heart of how ports relate to their constituencies: It accuses Vancouver port commissioners of using multiple closed-door meetings to illegally exclude people from their discussions of the lease proposal.
The port denies the allegations. It has repeatedly said public safety remains its top concern. And it has said the oil terminal won’t get built unless the companies’ proposal wins state-level safety and environmental approvals.
Yet opponents see increased public attention to the safety and environmental impacts of proposed oil and coal terminals as reason to believe ports can no longer easily don the robes of an agnostic. “People are paying attention,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, one of three environmental groups pressing legal complaints against the Port of Vancouver. “It’s no longer simply the bottom line and the most revenue.”
In the Northwest, the Port of Portland’s decision to temporarily back off oil transport sharply contrasts with the Port of Vancouver’s choice to pursue it. Oil terminal critics use Portland’s decision to hammer the Port of Vancouver.
“I don’t see how an oil terminal is unsafe on the Oregon side of the Columbia (River) and safe on the Washington side,” VandenHeuvel said. “The striking thing is how close in proximity the ports of Portland and Vancouver are and the different approach they’ve taken on oil.”
In an email to The Columbian, Abbi Russell, a spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said the port moves “forward on projects we think have merit and will bring benefit to the port and our community.” She also said the port understands that “every port needs to make decisions that make sense for them.”
‘Protests may occur’
Initially, an oil-train operation made sense to the Port of Portland, too.
It considered three sites: Terminals 4, 5 and 6. It analyzed the production of crude from the Bakken shale formation in the Midwest and from oil sands in Canada. It assessed business risks, including Kinder Morgan’s plan to repurpose an existing natural gas pipeline to connect West Texas crude to Southern California. And it contemplated the “primary specific concern among governments and community groups” over the potential for “oil spills, whether from unit trains, pipelines from the unit trains to the storage tanks to the dock, and barges.”
In May 2013 — about a month after Tesoro and Savage announced their oil terminal proposal in Vancouver — the Port of Portland signed a nondisclosure agreement with an unspecified company (the port redacted its identity in documents) to explore locating an oil export facility near Terminal 6.
Just shy of a year later, however, the port backed away.
In March 2014, it publicly announced that while it was “interested in being part of an American energy renaissance brought on by this remarkable domestic oil transformation” it did not “believe that we have sufficient answers to the important questions regarding environmental and physical safety to proceed with any type of development at this time.”
In an email to The Columbian, Kama Simonds, a spokeswoman for the Port of Portland, said “rail car safety was the primary issue” that led the port to temporarily halt its pursuit of an oil-train terminal.
But the port also worried about damaging “our hard-won positive environmental reputation,” documents show, and noted “other relationships will be affected,” including “other governments, neighborhood associations and civic groups …”
“National environmental groups will be involved — Sierra Club, Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Greenpeace,” it also noted. “Protests may occur.”
And the Port of Portland was aware of the controversy that engulfed its neighbor, remarking that “as seen with the Tesoro project at the Port of Vancouver and other energy-related projects at several other ports on the river system and along the coastline, these kinds of announcements can quickly create opposition, controversy and protests.”
Unlike the Port of Vancouver, whose three commissioners are elected by Clark County voters, the Port of Portland’s nine commissioners are appointed by Oregon’s governor and ratified by the state Senate.
The Port of Portland’s Simonds said Gov. John Kitzhaber wasn’t kept informed of the port’s initial pursuit of an oil-by-rail facility and that “we are not aware of any formal statement issued to the port from the governor’s office.”
Nowadays, she said, the port pursues “other energy-related projects” and focuses on Canadian company Pembina Pipeline’s plan to build a propane export facility near Terminal 6. Propane would be brought to the facility by train and eventually shipped overseas. The propane terminal would use the same property that the Port of Portland had considered for an oil-by-rail transfer operation. That project is also expected to face opposition from environmental groups.
Josh Thomas, a spokesman for the Port of Portland, said the port is “extremely discerning” when thinking about energy-sector opportunities. After rejecting coal and temporarily halting oil, he said, the port is now working with Pembina. “Propane has an excellent track record as a clean and safe alternative fuel,” Thomas said, “with a good climate story, displacing many dirtier traditional fuels.”
‘We are not alone’
If the Port of Portland only temporarily dropped the idea of an oil-train venture, the Port of Olympia in Washington went further.
In August 2014, the Olympia port commission voted 2-1 to approve a resolution expressing “deep concern” about the threat to “life, safety, the environment and economic development” of hauling Bakken crude by train “through our county.”
The resolution urged the Port of Grays Harbor — some 50 miles west of the Port of Olympia — to reconsider allowing three proposed oil-transfer terminals. It also called on the city of Hoquiam to reject construction permits for the projects.
The Olympia port’s resolution didn’t sit well with the executive committee of the Washington Public Ports Association. The committee shot a letter — signed by five port commissioners, including Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver — to Port of Olympia Commissioner George Barner. The letter chastised the resolution as meddling in another port’s lawful business. “We can only presume that if another port were to do this to the Port of Olympia that you would be rightly, and deeply, offended,” according to the letter, signed by Oliver, Port of Seattle Commissioner Tom Albro, Port of Benton Commissioner Roy Keck, Port of Everett Commissioner Troy McClelland and Port of Chelan County Commissioner JC Baldwin.
Barner and his colleague, Port of Olympia Commissioner Sue Gunn, who cast the other “yes” vote for the resolution, returned fire with a letter of their own. “As public officials, we have a responsibility to protect our citizenry and our natural resources,” they wrote in their letter addressed to Albro. “We are not alone in our concern over the passage of crude oil by rail through our community, as no less than sixteen other jurisdictions have passed similar resolutions, including the cities of Anacortes, Aberdeen, Auburn, Bellingham, Chehalis, Edmonds, Hoquiam, Kent, Mukilteo, Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, and Westport; King and Whatcom Counties, and the Columbia River Gorge Commission.”
The jousting letters illustrate that not all ports think alike when it comes to how they do business.
Although the Port of Portland didn’t join the Port of Vancouver in seeking a share of the vast quantity of crude coming onto the nation’s rails, there appears to be no acrimony between them.
Shortly before the Port of Portland said last March that it wasn’t going after an oil-by-rail project, it gave the Port of Vancouver a heads-up about it.
“We wanted to make sure you had visibility to it prior to its release as the port is effectively making and taking a public position on crude-by-rail,” Sam Ruda, chief commercial officer for the Port of Portland, wrote in an email to Port of Vancouver CEO Todd Coleman and Chief Marketing/Sales Officer Alastair Smith.
Ruda offered to discuss the matter with them.
“I am doing this on behalf of Bill Wyatt (the Port of Portland’s executive director) who is traveling in Vietnam,” Ruda wrote in his Feb. 28, 2014 email. “At the same time, I have been very involved in this matter and am prepared to offer you perspectives and context as to why we are doing this at this time.”
Russell, the spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said Coleman and Smith thanked Ruda for the heads-up when they later spoke with him. “These types of courtesy communications are common,” she said. “There was no additional discussion related to the statement.”