Time really flies when you’re swimming in a swamp of words and numbers that frame the grinding debate over building the nation’s largest oil terminal.
Friday marked the closing of the 60-day comment period for the project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, a massive state review of the rail-to-marine terminal proposed for the Port of Vancouver.
Even with holiday season distractions, thousands joined the long-running debate. Opponents dominated, though supporters also made their case in writing and at three public hearings this month in front of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
During those hearings — two in Clark County and one in Spokane — many familiar arguments for and against the terminal were repeated, as they have been for 2 1/2 years.
Through all the echoes and shouts, however, the environmental review produced a few important takeaways that help frame the debate as we get closer to a decision from Gov. Jay Inslee on the project’s fate.
Vancouver Energy rail-to-marine oil terminal
• A joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. first proposed in 2013.
• Would handle 360,000 barrels of oil per day largely sourced from the North Dakota Bakken region.
• Oil would arrive on an average of four 120-unit trains per day traveling through Spokane and the Columbia River Gorge.
• Cargo ships, about one per day, would move the oil from the Port of Vancouver to West Coast refineries.
• Facility would cost $210 million to build at the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 5.
• Project is under review by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. It will recommend to the governor, who will decide, perhaps as early as this year, to allow or deny the terminal. His decision can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Here are some of the main themes that emerged in the public review process.
1. Safety, safety, safety
Opponents couldn’t stress enough the risks involved with operating the rail-to-marine terminal, often bringing up the downtown oil train explosion in Lac-M?gantic, Quebec, in 2013 that killed 47 people. Another oft-cited risk is the likelihood of a minor derailment once every two years on average, according to the environmental review. Spills could have long-lasting effects on ecosystems and human life, and first responders have taken issue with their ability to cope with a major life-threatening incident. Still, Vancouver Energy and supporters say they’re confident the facility will be operated safely and that the evaluation council, and the governor, will agree.
2. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The biggest argument for the project are the economic benefits promised by the construction and operation of the terminal. Along with hundreds of jobs — Vancouver Energy has said more than 1,000 would be generated, mostly indirectly — the joint venture says $2 billion will pour into the region over 15 years, including millions of new tax dollars. It would certainly help the port get a return on the West Vancouver Freight Access project, which required a $275 million investment from the port and other sources. Opponents have claimed the terminal could cost the economy jobs by tarnishing the reputation of the town and driving out small businesses.
Vancouver Energy showed more promotional chops than it had in the past. Executives from Tesoro and Savage offered press interviews and lobbied their own constituencies to support the project. Even BNSF Railway, which will move the oil to Vancouver, got into the act by sending emails encouraging its employees and others to publicly support the project. At the hearings, Vancouver Energy hosted a hospitality center with free food and drinks for all.
But those efforts were no match for opponents who have fought the project for years. Local and regional environmental groups are deeply engaged in the battle, and it showed with the strong turnout at all three hearings and with the loud protest outside the first Vancouver hearing.
With the retirement of Port of Vancouver Commissioner Nancy Baker and the election of oil terminal opponent Eric LaBrant, the unanimous support for the terminal among the commission is now a two-thirds majority. That much was clear between Jan. 5, when LaBrant took to the stage during an oil protest at a terminal hearing, and on Jan. 12, when Commissioner Jerry Oliver took to the microphone in support of the terminal. Though the process is unlikely to last all the way to November 2017, when Commissioner Brian Wolfe’s seat is up for election, the terminal’s support on the commission could erode further. That could be a worry for port CEO Todd Coleman, the project’s biggest backer at the port.
A lot of people are paying attention to the terminal’s progress through the permitting process — the public hearing on Jan. 5 was perhaps the largest in Clark County’s history. Yet if there were reporters swarming the event, they must have missed their deadlines. The Oregonian has been all but silent on a regional issue that has attracted as many if not more Portlanders than Washingtonians. Other outlets have offered cursory coverage, though Oregon Public Broadcasting has devoted resources to the terminal. Once again, the Columbia River seemed wide enough to put Clark County in a news-free zone even on an issue of regional and even national significance.
Perhaps the biggest supporters for the jobs provided by the terminal are the people who would receive those paychecks signed by Vancouver Energy. The Southwest Washington Central Labor Council, which represents about 10,000 workers of various trades, has implored Inslee to approve the project and put its members to work. The council lauds Vancouver Energy for agreeing to use local labor and remaining neutral about union membership. That support is in stark contrast with the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 4, which has outspokenly opposed the terminal as unsafe for workers.
Several Northwest tribal members have come out against the terminal, with concerns ranging from oil train safety to climate change to effects on fishing, livelihood and tribal sovereignty.
“Yakama Nation will not tolerate further harm to our culturally rich indigenous homelands, or the lands and waters that sustain and provide us with sustenance,” Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy said at the Jan. 5 hearing. “The Tesoro/Savage project threatens not only the treaty-reserved rights of Yakama People, but the rights, security, and the health of all people because of the cumulative impacts that will likely add to the climate change struggles we are currently facing.”
Vancouver Energy has said it will ship pipeline-grade crude oil, mostly from North Dakota, to West Coast refineries to fill the growing demand there and replace foreign oil imports. The draft Environmental Impact Statement says the terminal could also handle oil from the energy-intensive tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta. The impact statement also says that if the oil export ban is lifted, the terminal could potentially export crude to foreign markets. Congress lifted the ban in December, giving those opposed to the terminal more fuel to challenge the argument for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil via the terminal. Incidentally, Tesoro had advocated for ending the export ban.
For a project this complex, there simply isn’t room to address every concern or promote every benefit. But there are a few key words to keep in mind or search for in the environmental review, found at efsec.wa.gov: earthquake; energy independence; climate change; environmental justice; alternatives; first responders; salmon; Jones Act. Both sides read them through different sets of looking glasses.
10. What’s next
After reviewing the thousands of comments it has received, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will finalize the Environmental Impact Statement and package it with a recommendation for the governor. Inslee isn’t allowed to comment until he makes his decision, and he said last week in Vancouver that he’s approaching the project with an open mind. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been speculation about the governor’s leanings.
Jim Luce, the former chair of the evaluation council and a Vancouver resident, said he never oversaw a project that generated this much of a response. He also pointed out that this is the lone oil terminal proposed in the state that the governor has say over.
“It depends on what the governor wants to do,” Luce said. “If he wants to make a statement on the basis of first responders and (climate change), this is it.”