Environmentalists say that the Pacific Northwest is staring down a future of radical transformation. They're not specifically talking about climate change, though that's also a radical transformation we're currently staring down. They're talking about the industries that contribute to climate change and how they increasingly want to use this state as a thruway.
The Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, and Climate Solutions hosted a telebriefing Wednesday morning dedicated to the rapid expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure throughout Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. All of the new coal-terminal, crude-by-rail, and pipeline project proposals in the region, the groups say, could position the PNW to become a "speed bump on a fossil-fuel highway to Asia."
That line came from Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute. Here's a map that sums up his perspective:
On the left, de Place said, are some of the hungriest energy markets in the world. On the right, you've got some of the biggest carbon deposits in North America. Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin, for example, holds 25 billion tons of "economically recoverable" coal. The Bakken shale formation in North Dakota marked the largest domestic oil discovery since Prudhoe Bay in the '60s. Up north, there's the Canadian tar sands, producing some of the heaviest crude on the market. As you can see, Cascadia's squeezed in between the two.
The United States now ranks as the world's number one oil and gas producer (America!). But despite the effective ban on crude-oil exports that's been in place for the last 40 years, de Place and others are worried that new signals from the Obama administration mean that ban will soon be lifted. House Republicans want to overturn the ban, too.
And yet, whether or not the restriction disappears, the Pacific Northwest would still be on track to allow more oil flowing to domestic refineries than the Keystone XL pipeline if all its oil-by-rail projects get developed, according to de Place. "The sheer scale of this suggests we're entering uncharted waters, but we also have an unprecedented opportunity to decide what Pacific Northwest fossil-fuel infrastructure looks like," he said.
Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, also expressed concern on the call about what the proposed terminals mean for salmon, shellfish, and sportfishing. To Rees, it's clear that fossil-fuel extraction and transportation threaten local waters and the marine life that depends on them. "Most of us anticipate there are going to be major spills along the waterway," he said. "A major oil spill would wipe us out like Valdez, Alaska."
"It's not really a question of if it happens, just when and where it happens," he added.
Rees also worried about another potential side effect of the oil industry's expanding presence in the Northwest. If there's an increased number of new vessels out on the water to transport oil, he said, safety zones established around these vessels to ward off protesters could block entire waterways for sportfishing fleets.
(Another concern that wasn't mentioned on the call is the rise of barges—basically, "mini oil tankers"—used to transport oil over water. Barges aren't regulated as closely as tankers are, and legislators recently stripped an important barge regulation out of the governor's oil-transportation safety bill.)
But the PNW does have some choice in all this. Several of the proposed projects will go through public review processes this summer, into the fall, and early next year. Activists, meanwhile, are blocking crude-oil trains. Tribes are also taking major steps to limit fossil-fuel projects that threaten their treaty rights. This morning, the Coast Salish Nation—a coalition made up of dozens of powerful tribes throughout the region—announced that it had unanimously agreed to protect the Salish Sea from crude-oil shipments specifically.
"We consider it a sacred trust," Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell said in a statement released about the Coast Salish Nation agreement. "Protecting sensitive land and marine habitat is priority one for the peoples of the Coast Salish Nation. Together, we say 'no' to crude-oil shipments—by rail, by pipeline, by sea."