After a significant drop earlier this year, the number of oil trains rolling through Clark County again ticked upward last month, according to reports from BNSF Railway.
The county now sees 11 to 15 trains carrying crude oil each week, according to the railroad. That’s more than the eight to 12 per week it estimated as recently as May. But it’s less than last summer’s peak, when 18 trains passed through the county in a single week.
The tally is similar on other parts of BNSF’s main oil train route, which enters Washington near Spokane, then snakes through the Columbia River Gorge and Vancouver before heading toward Puget Sound. A shift in the numbers doesn’t change how state regulators operate or prepare for a spill, said David Byers, response manager with the state Department of Ecology.
“That’s still a significant number of trains coming through,” Byers said. He added: “We’re expecting over the long term for that number to increase fairly significantly.”
A slew of proposed oil-handling facilities could dramatically increase the number of oil trains rolling through Washington. The largest of those, an oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver, could by itself bring four oil trains per day into Clark County at full capacity — or about 28 trains per week. The project proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the United States if built.
The sharp rise in oil train traffic has been largely fueled by an oil boom centered on North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation. Hundreds of millions of gallons of crude now travel on Washington’s rails each year. None did as recently as 2011.
The increase in oil train traffic in North America has coincided with a string of derailments, fires and explosions in recent years. Last week, a BNSF train derailed and spilled 35,000 gallons of oil in northeast Montana. The train originated in North Dakota, and was reportedly bound for Washington.
Those incidents have amplified an already strong opposition to oil trains and new terminals in several locations, including Vancouver.
“For us, every train that moves feels like a gamble,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper.
Columbia Riverkeeper is among the groups that opposes the Tesoro-Savage terminal, as well as a separate, much smaller oil-handling operation proposed for the Port of Vancouver by NuStar Energy.
“Every one of those trains poses a huge risk to the Columbia River and to Vancouver,” Serres said.
Railroads began providing oil train counts to Washington and other states last year after an emergency order by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The reports shed new light on a subject that railroads and regulators had been reluctant to discuss publicly. But the carriers are only required to provide updates when the volume changes by 25 percent.
In BNSF’s case, that hasn’t happened often. The company has only submitted two reports to state officials since last fall.
“It’s driven by demand,” said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. “We do see some fluctuation, but it’s been relatively consistent.”
Oil prices have been far less stable, trending sharply downward since last year. Yet, even as the number of active drilling rigs in North Dakota has fallen with them, the state continues to maintain sky-high production totals. North Dakota pumped out an average of 1.2 million barrels of crude per day in May, the most recent data available. The state’s record is 1.23 million barrels per day, set in December. (One barrel of oil equals 42 gallons.)
Meanwhile, Washington officials are preparing for the possibility of a spill as best they can, Byers said. The state plans to conduct a new risk assessment for the Columbia River. Geographic response plans are being updated. A grant program aims to offer training and equipment to local fire departments and other agencies.
Those initiatives were all spurred by a new law that passed the Washington Legislature this year.
“If we have trains coming through our state, we want to prevent accidents from happening and be prepared for spills if they do occur,” Byers said.
Of course, crude oil also moves by marine vessel and pipeline in Washington — and has for decades. Each mode carries its own risks that are still present as volumes grow, Byers said.
“It’s not only train risks that we’re looking at,” he said.