The state agency that reviews major energy projects agreed Tuesday to launch preliminary meetings that will help set the stage for a courtlike trial of a proposal to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
The Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council voted unanimously to kick off preparations for the trial of the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to receive an average of 360,000 barrels of crude per day at the port. Those legal preparations could include identifying which parties will intervene, which expert witnesses will provide testimony and when site visits will be held.
It’s unclear when those and other pretrial matters will be settled. However, the evaluation council’s administrative law judge, Cassandra Noble, could issue an order that begins the oil terminal’s initial legal proceedings by the end of this month.
Tuesday’s action came despite concerns raised by project opponents that the council was rushing the proposal’s legal and environmental review. They opposed launching any legal proceedings until the draft analysis of the oil terminal’s environmental impacts is released for public review and comment.
Understanding what’s in the draft analysis, expected to be released in May, would enable the parties involved to prepare for the trial, opponents argued. Otherwise, the value of any pretrial hearings would be limited, they say.
The evaluation council disagreed. Its chairman, Bill Lynch, said the council won’t begin the oil terminal’s actual trial before the draft impact analysis is released. Launching the pretrial process now, he said, provides efficiency by “setting up a structure” for the trial to proceed. “By no means are we rushing this process at all,” he said.
Noble, the administrative law judge, said the council’s rules allow it to launch the adjudicative process before the draft impact analysis is completed. And opening legal proceedings now doesn’t mean that environmental and other issues “cannot be brought into trial at a later time as the issues evolve and become finalized,” she said.
“In no way is this rushing the process or starting early or anything of the sort,” Noble said. “It’s just giving everyone the opportunity to get started with the preliminary work that needs to be done.”
Tesoro and Savage filed their permit application with the evaluation council on Aug. 29, 2013.
By law, the evaluation council must reach a thumbs up or down recommendation to Washington’s governor within 12 months of receiving an application for a large energy project proposal. But the law also allows deadline extensions, which are not unusual given the size and complexity of proposals.
The evaluation council has already extended the deadline for a recommendation on the oil terminal to March 2.
In a Dec. 17 letter to the council, Jay Derr, an attorney for Vancouver Energy — the joint Tesoro and Savage venture — said the companies “do not think it is appropriate to be asked to agree to an open-ended extension.” He also urged the council and its staff to meet milestones so that the draft environmental impact examination “will be available as soon as possible, but by May 2015 at the latest.”
Stephen Posner, the evaluation council’s manager, said Tuesday that the joint venture is expected to request another deadline extension, which the council will consider next month.