An oil tanker floating in Padilla Bay, near Anacortes. Lawmakers recently nixed a provision to make rules for a smaller version of this in Puget Sound waters.
An oil tanker floating in Padilla Bay, near Anacortes. Lawmakers recently nixed an attempt to make rules for a smaller version of this kind of oil transport—one that involves lots of oil-filled barges in Puget Sound waters. cpaulfell/Shutterstock

If the Pacific Northwest builds all of its proposed rail-terminal expansions and pipelines, 2,000 more tankers and barges full of tar sands crude could soon be floating around local waters, according to a new report published by a coalition of environmental groups earlier this week. The report predicts that the oil industry would move six times the amount of oil that's currently stored and exported through Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.

Too bad Washington State legislators removed a critical provision about oil-barge safety from the oil-transportation safety bill they just approved.

Tanker ships are different from barges. Oil tanker ships, which are bigger, already have a number of regulations attached to them in Puget Sound. They have tug escort requirements, for example, in case something goes wrong and the tug has to tow the tanker to harbor.

But barges aren't subject to the same standards. "What we've seen as we've looked under the hood of oil transportation last year is that the oil industry is increasingly relying on things called barges that are basically like mini oil tankers," Washington Environmental Council legislative director Darcy Nonemacher said. "And the reason they prefer those barges is because they're not regulated in the same way oil tankers are."

The first version of the state's approved legislation—which was requested by Governor Jay Inslee—would have had a state board adopt tug rules for barges, but by the end of political negotiations with the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee last week, that piece of the bill had been stripped out.

Tar-sands crude also poses a particular threat to marine ecosystems: It's heavy, it sinks, and no one has too much practice in cleaning it up. When a pipeline carrying Canadian tar-sands oil ruptured over a Kalamazoo River tributary in 2010, dozens of miles of the waterway were closed for nearly two years, and the mess took at least $1.21 billion to resolve.

Were the bill's sponsors feeling any regrets?

"We absolutely need to be worried about dirty, sticky tar-sands oil coming across our waterways, and we need to act," Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle), primary sponsor of House Bill 1449, said. "The oil-industry-backed Republican senate refused to negotiate on the marine side. And given the danger, and all the good things on the rail side, I felt we needed to pass a bill and come back on the marine side next year—and I'm totally committed to that."

Farrell said that the primary complaints about the barge requirements had to do with associated costs to the oil industry. We reached out to Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale), who chairs the senate committee, about that, but haven't yet heard back.

"Regardless of rule-making authority, agencies will continue to look for any necessary changes to improve the safety of marine crude-oil transport," David Postman, Inslee's executive director of communications, said. "And if need be, we will go back to the legislature to try again for more protections. There’s no complacency on this issue."