BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota officials are pressuring the state of Washington to back off from legislation requiring oil shipped by rail to have more of its volatile gases removed, urging the governor to veto the bill and threatening a lawsuit over worries it could hamper the energy industry of the nation’s No. 2 crude producer.
The bill awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature requires a lower vapor pressure limit for crude shipped by rail than either North Dakota requirements or industry standards. Violations could result in fines of up to $2,500 per day per rail car.
That “would result in a de factor ban of crude-by-rail traffic from North Dakota to refineries throughout the Pacific Northwest,” North Dakota’s three members of Congress said in a letter sent Friday imploring Inslee to veto the bill.
Inslee, who has made climate change a focus of his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, was still reviewing the bill Tuesday, spokeswoman Tara Lee said. She didn’t comment on whether pressure from North Dakota’s congressional delegation or the threat of a lawsuit by the state might influence his decision.
North Dakota’s Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, was to meet in a closed session Tuesday afternoon to discuss a possible lawsuit. The group is comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.
Although Gov. Jay Inslee last year rejected an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota remain a familiar sight in Clark County. The Washington State Department of Ecology classifies Southwest Washington as a major oil train corridor, with hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil moving through the region each year.
State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, who traveled to Washington in February to testify against the bill, has said previously that North Dakota will sue if the bill becomes law.
The volatility of oil trains drew widespread public attention following several explosive derailments, including one in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that killed 47 people. Washington’s bill is aimed at boosting safety for schools and homes that are near passing oil trains, according to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, the sponsor.
“These large shipments of extremely flammable fuel run through the heart of our state, starting with my community in Spokane,” he said in March after the Washington Senate gave initial approval .
The bill sets a vapor pressure limit of less than 9 pounds per square inch for oil unloaded from trains, lower than North Dakota’s limit of 13.7 psi and what is considered the national standard for stable crude of 14.7. North Dakota’s limit, implemented in 2015 , builds in 1 psi as a margin of error.
About 150,000 barrels of North Dakota crude, or about one-tenth of the daily production in the state, is shipped to Washington refineries. Lowering that oil to a vapor pressure below 9 psi would require the removal of components such as butane, which is needed as an additive for winter gasoline blends so vehicles start in cold weather. That would devalue the product, said Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade group representing about 500 energy companies.
Council President Ron Ness said the Washington bill is “frankly scary” and the group “will be looking at all of our legal options.”
The Washington bill would require new refineries to adhere to the new vapor pressure standard. Existing facilities would have to follow the rule beginning two years after increasing their oil volume by more than 10 percent from 2018. Cutting said some of the refineries had “major maintenance downtime” in 2018 and that they could trigger the requirement simply by resuming their normal volumes.
North Dakota produces more oil than any other state but Texas, accounting for about 12 percent of U.S. production. The state saw record production in January of 1.4 million barrels daily.
If Bakken crude is cut off from the Pacific Northwest it ultimately will find other markets, though “there will be some time that it will be restrained,” Cutting said. But she said the pressure on Washington to backtrack on the oil train rule is important because “it can’t be allowed (for) one state to hamper commerce for other states.”