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News / Business / Clark County Business

Diverse groups join forces against oil terminal

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 29, 2016, 6:05am
4 Photos
One among hundreds of demonstrators, Maureen Hildreth, center, voices her opposition to the Vancouver Energy oil terminal at an anti-terminal rally Jan. 5 at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. The campaign Stand Up To Oil organized the rally, and others like it, to tap into the strong regional distaste for fossil fuel projects.
One among hundreds of demonstrators, Maureen Hildreth, center, voices her opposition to the Vancouver Energy oil terminal at an anti-terminal rally Jan. 5 at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. The campaign Stand Up To Oil organized the rally, and others like it, to tap into the strong regional distaste for fossil fuel projects. (NATALIE BEHRING/Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When plans for the nation’s largest oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver surfaced in 2013, project backers likely expected opposition from environmentalists. But what they surely didn’t anticipate was that a broad swath of the region, from city councils to local businesses to Indian tribes, would so forcefully turn against a project promising tax dollars and jobs to a cash- and job-hungry community.

In the past three years, a broad-based coalition of terminal opponents has waged an unrelenting campaign to win the hearts and minds of the general public. Most of the connections within the coalition are loose and each member focuses on their particular interests, be they global warming or the risks of crude-by-rail. Collectively they’ve managed to overwhelm supporters at public hearings and in the state’s environmental review process, which generated more than 250,000 comments on the terminal, nearly all opposed to the project.

“I think (Tesoro and Savage) expected this to be easy and straightforward, they were going to roll into town and sail through the permitting process,” said Eric de Place, policy director of Seattle-based Sightline Institute, an environmentally focused think tank and one of the leading opponents of the oil terminal. “I don’t think they counted on running into this buzz saw opposition.”

The debate isn’t over. Despite local outcry that has amassed since the project’s initial proposal, the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners still support the project. Even Commissioner Eric LaBrant, who was elected on an anti-terminal platform, voted to extend Vancouver Energy’s lease after winning some concessions.

Supporters and opponents are awaiting the next round of debate before the quasi-judicial Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The evaluation council will enter into a period of adjudication, with testimony similar to that of a court proceeding, beginning June 27.

Jared Larrabee, general manager of the Vancouver Energy partnership of Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., said that just because the opposition is loud doesn’t mean it represents the broadest base of county residents. He points to a scientific poll conducted in June 2015 showing that 68 percent of 400 Clark County voters somewhat or strongly favor the terminal.

Tesoro and Savage are more focused on making meaningful industry improvements rather than championing fossil fuels, Larrabee said.

“Our focus has more been making actual changes, not on trying to sway perception,” he said.

But the opposition’s arguments clearly have resonated with Clark County residents. Scott L. Montgomery, a faculty member of the international studies department of the University of Washington, said the oil industry’s reputation has been tarnished by high-profile incidents like the Deepwater Horizon leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the Quebec rail explosion that killed 47 people. Montgomery, who spent 25 years as a geoscientist in the energy industry, said those fossil-fuel opponents see themselves as fighting for the fate of the planet and their weapon is “well-practiced and tempered discourse potent with emotional content, anger, injustice and symbolism.

“The opposition feels energized, legitimized and, even to a point, sanctified,” he said. In their minds, “They have a real power of accusation: these are the people who are raping the land and doubling our pollution. This discourse is very powerful.”

Coal became catalyst

About six years ago, a boom in the domestic fossil fuel industry produced a spate of proposals for new export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Opposition to coal-carrying trains and terminals began almost immediately.

A group of Washington and Oregon environmental groups created the campaign Power Past Coal in late 2010. Its message of scrapping dirty and dangerous coal and favoring clean energy resonated from British Columbia to California and out to Montana and Wyoming.

“We very quickly brought on over 115 groups to partner in the Power Past Coal campaign, and it wasn’t a big sell,” said Beth Doglio, campaign director of Climate Solutions and co-director of Power Past Coal and Stand Up To Oil. “In my 30 years of organizing I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The methods used in opposing coal would prove a winning formula for the environmental community and a key to building a foundation for a battle against oil, a tougher target for environmental opposition than its coal cousin.

“Nobody likes coal. Coal is easy to pick on, but more people feel connected to oil — we use it all the time,” said de Place of the Sightline Institute. “But the real legitimate risk of an oil fire or spill grabs and galvanizes people … an exploding train brings people to the table like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

When the oil terminal surfaced in Vancouver, only a small but dedicated group of people turned out to the earliest Port of Vancouver meetings, said Brett VandenHeuvel, director of Columbia RiverKeeper, the environmental group that helped found Power Past Coal and Stand Up To Oil. Everything changed after July 2013, when a train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and blowing away half of the city’s downtown area.

“The Lac-Mégantic explosion was a really galvanizing moment when people realized these trains would be coming through town,” VandenHeuvel said.

By that time, the Port of Vancouver commission had approved a lease with Tesoro-Savage. Still, the explosion shifted the conversation for everyone involved and created a groundswell of interest in stopping the oil trains.

“I think it definitely created some unlikely bedfellows. I continue to be amazed at the breadth of opposition on the oil and coal projects as well,” de Place said.

Among the early opponents was the Vancouver-based Local 4 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever been involved with something that brought on this broad of a coalition with this many groups,” said Jared Smith, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4. “It seems everybody is usually on different sides of the fence, but this time everybody is against it.”

A few weeks after the explosion, Bill McKibben, a nationally known environmental activist and founder of the global grass-roots movement 350.org, participated in a boat tour near the terminal property. During a speech at Clark College he told the audience Vancouver and the Northwest could become key tipping points in the global fight against climate change.

“This area has emerged as this great choke point,” said McKibben, who will be a member of the platform-writing committee at this year’s Democratic National Convention. “If it doesn’t happen here … it doesn’t happen anywhere,” at least on such a large scale, he said.

Crude-by-rail and the Vancouver Energy oil terminal attracted national attention as nearly a dozen derailments, including fiery incidents in Quebec, North Dakota and West Virginia, made news in 2013 and 2014.

Opponents to crude-by-rail and the Vancouver oil terminal stretched from Western Washington out to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. As with many other groups, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission got involved as a result of its earlier opposition to coal terminals that were planned for the West Coast. The commission partnered with tribes in Oregon and Idaho to oppose those projects and draft resolutions against the terminals and trains. The commission turned to oil issues in 2014 and started coordinating with Columbia RiverKeeper, Earthjustice and regional tribes to comment on environmental reviews and permit applications made by oil companies.

Several communities along the BNSF rail line that would carry crude oil, including the city of Vancouver, have drafted resolutions concerning the oil trains and highlighted the explosiveness of Bakken crude.

Don Orange, owner of a Vancouver auto shop, initially thought the opposition to the terminal was based on a “not in my backyard” mentality. He changed his opinion when he began to see it as a threat to the city’s character and small-business community.

“The oil terminal is completely counter to what we think Vancouver should look like,” said Orange, a longtime community activist.

Orange and some other business owners started working with progressive community organizers and Stand Up To Oil to launch Vancouver 101, a coalition of almost 140 Vancouver small businesses opposed to the terminal. He’s now running against Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver for the 17th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.

Much of the opposition has coalesced behind Stand Up To Oil, which was created shortly after the Lac-Mégantic explosion and has emerged as one of the loudest voices in the Vancouver terminal opposition.

The organization’s direction is set by an executive committee of 10 different Pacific Northwest environmental groups and it’s connected to numerous smaller local groups that leverage their membership to draw large crowds at energy project public meetings.

Stand Up to Oil’s strength was apparent at EFSEC’s daylong public hearing on the Vancouver oil terminal in January at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. It says more than 1,000 people turned out to oppose the planned oil terminal. During the dinner break, a crowd of hundreds, many wearing winter jackets beneath red shirts — the color of the anti-terminal campaign — packed into a chilly outbuilding for a rally against the terminal that the group organized.

The shared color “reminds people you’re not fighting this on your own,” said Kerry McHugh, communications director of the Washington Environmental Council and a spokeswoman for Stand Up To Oil. “It makes it easier to feel like ‘Oh, my God. Everyone is against this.’ ”

At a nearby conference room rented by Vancouver Energy, a relative handful milled around during the long hearing, where a small number of terminal supporters wore blue.

Willy Myers, executive secretary treasure of Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, who testified in favor of the project, was one of them. “We’re definitely not quite as organized or mobilized as the opposition,” he said. “We’re also in an upturn in the economy with construction going on and a lot less volunteers because the majority of members are working.”

Tribal support crucial

Despite the public trashings, Vancouver Energy shows no signs of backing away from the project. It has worked to win public support both for the project and for the company.

In October, Vancouver Energy sent mailers to Clark County residents extolling the virtues of the project. It conducted professional polls, hosted events, and established a charitable fund which gave away $100,000 last year.

The company frequently cites the economic benefits of adding $2 billion in economic value to the local and regional economy, a $22 million one-time tax payment and $7.8 million in annual tax revenue. But that may not be enough to win over the environmentally sensitive residents of the Pacific Northwest, said Montgomery, the University of Washington faculty member.

“You can talk the economic advantages but that doesn’t give you the moral, ethical high ground,” he said.

Since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Montgomery said, oil has been demonized in a way few other materials have. That’s evidenced by how little news circulation the derailments and spills of other highly toxic materials garner compared to oil mishaps, he said, pointing to a derailment and spill of sodium hydroxide in downtown Washington, D.C., on May 1.

“(Sodium hydroxide) will eat your clothes off your back, and that was just a (news) blip,” he said.

From Montgomery’s perspective, the environmental community’s biggest trump card in the battle for public opinion is having the tribes on their side.

“The criticism that the environmental community doesn’t like to discuss at all is the anti-fossil fuel and nuclear movements are white affluent middle-class people. You don’t find immigrants or blacks,” he said. “(With) the tribal voice … you drag in the historical guilt and their concern with their traditional ways of life. Having them as a force in the opposition is really very strong.”

Oil companies haven’t found a way to match that, he said, but the region’s hostility to fossil fuels makes it unlikely they ever could. In the Gulf States, which have a much friendlier and dependent relationship with fossil fuels, a company can tout the economic advantages to a receptive public.

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“In other areas that are known to be liberal they’re going to keep it as quiet as they can and it fails every time,” Montgomery said. “I can’t say they’re very sophisticated (marketers), but I can say they really have their backs against the wall in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Washington state.”

The evaluation council’s quasi-judicial hearings on the terminal begin next month. EFSEC will then make its recommendation to approve — outright or with conditions — or deny the terminal and forward it to Gov. Jay Inslee.

While no one can say for certain how influential public opinion may be, those watching the issues say the terminal has renewed public engagement in local politics.

“Three or four years ago people didn’t even know we elected port commissioners, now everyone knows we do and knows the decisions a port makes can have an important impact,” de Place said.

Columbian staff writer