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Sept. 20, 2020

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Port commissioners vote 2-1 to extend oil terminal lease

Commissioner Brian Wolfe expresses frustration at devisivness project has caused

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
5 Photos
Community members in opposition to the proposed Vancouver oil terminal wave their fingers in support of commentary delivered at a board meeting of the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
Community members in opposition to the proposed Vancouver oil terminal wave their fingers in support of commentary delivered at a board meeting of the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Port of Vancouver will continue to lease land to Vancouver Energy for its proposed oil terminal after the agreement was the subject of a passionate and sometimes contentious meeting Tuesday. After five hours of testimony and deliberation, the vote was 2-1.

The outcome pleased Vancouver Energy and its supporters, who say the project deserves to at least live to see the end of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council’s long scrutiny. But it frustrated opponents who have spent, in some cases, years protesting the terminal.

Commissioner Eric LaBrant was the sole supporter of his motion to cancel the port’s lease with Vancouver Energy. Commissioners Brian Wolfe and Jerry Oliver voted no.

Port of Vancouver staff didn’t give the commission a recommendation on the lease, because it wasn’t brought up as an action item, but rather as new business on the agenda, said port spokeswoman Abbi Russell.

The vote came just before a March 31 deadline when either the port or Vancouver Energy could cancel the lease if they are dissatisfied with the terminal’s progress through the evaluation and permitting process. If neither party opts out, the lease automatically renews for three months.   

The project has been mired in nearly four years of review by the site evaluation council, which is expected to issue a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee in a few months on whether to grant the project a permit. Meanwhile, the port has been collecting $100,000 per month in rent on the vacant site.

Vancouver Energy, a joint venture of Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., would receive Bakken crude oil by train, store it on site, and load it onto vessels bound for refineries along the West Coast.

After the public comment period, LaBrant likened the terminal’s evaluation process to getting his children to bed, which he said is often delayed by one thing or another. The way he’s resolved it is by putting his foot down.

“Gentlemen, we’re being sold a bill of goods,” he told Oliver and Wolfe. “We need to make a decision as a commission to move on, be done with this process, and to move on to the other things that are in store for us.”

Oliver bristled at LaBrant’s characterization of the project. Oliver said forcefully that his vision for Vancouver’s future is “far greater” than LaBrant’s.

“I want to put men and women back to work who want to work,” he said.

Oliver also accused the environmental community of obfuscation and filing frivolous lawsuits. And, Oliver said, he is “sick and tired” of all their “falseness.”

Wolfe said that the commissioners had expected the evaluation council to finish its evaluation in January.

He read a letter provided to him by Vancouver Energy that listed the project’s achievements to this point. He also said he was “not happy” by the divisions the project has created in the community. 

“But accomplishments doesn’t make the project any less divisive. I can’t tell you how much I respect your passions,” he said to the crowd, which included both proponents and opponents.

Shortly after it became clear how the commissioners would vote, a handful of opponents chastised the board and walked out of the meeting.

“Passions run deep,” Wolfe said in response.

The public comment lasted more than 2½ hours and volleyed between proponents and opponents of the terminal, which at full capacity would handle 360,000 barrels of crude oil per day, making it the largest facility of its kind in the United States.

Some speakers said the terminal would operate safely and bring much-needed jobs to the community. Others said oil transportation poses an unnecessary danger to the environment.

“The nature of accidents is we don’t plan them but they do happen,” said Dave Herrera, who spoke against the terminal.

Project opponents wore red, a color synonymous with the movement against fossil fuel transport in the Pacific Northwest. Most project supporters who spoke were union members, several of whom wore shirts or jackets from their respective organizations. 

At least a few people’s voices cracked during their testimony against the project. A couple others spoke just below a shout as they urged the commission to terminate the lease, talking about China’s energy appetite, Vladimir Putin’s fossil fuel production goals for Russia, great-grandchildren, salmon, health and community spirit.

Supporters referred to the sophistication of their “union brothers and sisters” and their ability to build and operate large infrastructure projects safely.

While the two groups were diametrically opposed on the terminal, speakers from both sides agreed that the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council process has gone on for too long. State law mandates the council give a recommendation to the governor after a year. Vancouver Energy is nearly into its fourth year of evaluation.

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