Oil Trains On The Rise In The Northwest

Dec 5, 2012

Regulators in the region are weighing the potential impacts of trains full of coal moving along the Columbia River and the shores of Puget Sound. Meanwhile, trains full of Oil are quietly on the rise.

Ann Jones watches a train pass in front of her home outside of Bellingham. Trains carrying oil through the Northwest are on the rise.
Credit Katie Campbell / EarthFix

The crude is being extracted from a deposit known as the Bakken shale formation – located in North Dakota and Montana mainly.  Some of that oil is now on its way to refineries in the Northwest.

Dale Jensen is the spill program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. Oil trains are new concern for him.

“This is kinda the sleeper that has come on very strongly in such a very short period of time," Jensen says.

Right now the oil trains are bound for 2 refineries in Puget Sound – one in Tacoma and the other in Anacortes, Wash. – but there could be more on the way.

The BP refinery near Bellingham wants in, so does the port of Grays Harbor.

Jensen says that, as you might imagine, an oil train accident could cause major environmental damage.

“You’re dealing with a liquid that can move very quickly," he says.  "It can get into the groundwater. It can get into the streams. It can get into the rivers.”

Oil companies say they’re prepared.

Frank Holmes is with the Western States Petroleum Association.

“The major companies that are our members have nation wide, world wide oil spill response teams that can respond," Holmes says.

Holmes says that as of right now, Washington is still refining more oil from Alaska than from the Great Plains, though that’s starting to change.

Much of the Alaskan oil arrives by ship. The state collects a 5-cent tax on each barrel of that oil and uses the money to support the program that will deal with the environmental clean up if an accident occurs.

The thousands of barrels of oil that are transported by train don’t pay that tax. That means they’re not paying into the state clean up fund. Frank Holmes says that shouldn’t change.

“Before looking at expanding the oil tax we probably should look at finding ways to have those other sectors that Ecology is looking after contribute to the program.”

Holmes says those “other sectors” should include cargo ships and recreational boaters.

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