A Department of Ecology draft study published last fall found that the amount of oil chugging through Washington state “poses threats to the inland rivers, streams and groundwater.”
  • Steven Frame/Shutterstock
  • A Department of Ecology draft study published last fall found that the amount of oil chugging through Washington state “poses threats to the inland rivers, streams and groundwater.”

22nd Annual Port Townsend Film Festival - Virtual! Streaming Sep 23 - Oct 3, 2021.
80+ films, filmmaker interviews, & special events. 10 days of on-demand independent film. Passes On Sale Now!

For the last six years, environmentalists have framed the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline into a symbolic war on climate change. Never mind that a lot of people wish Congress could move past the debate already. Yes, Republicans proposed the pipeline permit again, and yes, the project would route a fat bit of infrastructure full of dirty-burning crude 1,179 miles over culturally and environmentally sensitive land and water. In the last couple of months, President Obama has made overtures signaling he will veto Keystone XL legislation if it reaches his desk, giving hope to anti-Keystone folks.

But there could be an unintended consequence of rejecting Keystone XL. Without the pipeline, Canadian oil producers might put more pressure on America’s existing oil-by-rail system, including the one that rattles through Washington state and downtown Seattle.

On January 15, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling announced that if President Obama doesn’t approve the pipeline, his company would consider building rail terminals to move tar sands oil through the United States. Girling might as well have extended his middle finger: Pipelines would be a safer alternative, he added, according to the Associated Press.

“To the degree that the West Coast refiners want to acquire more of that heavy, sour crude, that increase is likely to come through Washington on a rail basis,” says Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.

It’s tough to predict how much more crude West Coast refiners will want, but as of 2013, Washington refineries were already receiving some 57,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day, according to Oil Change International. Oil companies also want the stuff off their hands. Washington could make an attractive destination.

“[Oil companies] are trying to get the tar sands and the Bakken oil out no matter which way they can,” says Rebecca Ponzio, a Puget Sound policy analyst at the Washington Environmental Council. “Washington is closest in terms of Asian markets.”

But regardless of what the future markets look like, it’s clear that Washington needs to update its oil train safety laws now. A Department of Ecology draft study published last fall found that the amount of oil chugging through the state already “poses threats to the inland rivers, streams and groundwater.” Explosions could be devastating, too. The report showed that more than half of Washington Emergency Management Division districts would be unprepared if an oil train ran off the tracks.

Hence the reason why two oil train safety energy bills started duking it out in the state legislature last week. One, modeled by Governor Inslee and proposed by Senate Democrats, would open up the oil train system to the public eye—mandating that updates on routes, cargo, and spills be uploaded to a Department of Ecology website on a regular basis. That same bill would also increase the tax cap on barrels of oil carried over rail and make oil carriers prove they would be able to pay for a worst-case scenario spill cleanup.

“We should be [creating more oil train safety rules] anyway,” says Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute. “Because we’re considering a massive amplification of oil by rail and expecting tar sands, that’s all the more reason to do it.”

Support The Stranger

But the other bill is the one oil interests are beginning to rally behind. State Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) introduced legislation that would include some of the recommendations from the Department of Ecology’s draft report, but leaves out a few of the other bill’s key protections—the big one being the requirement that oil companies demonstrate financial responsibility for worst-case spills, which oil companies really, really don’t want. The other bit Ericksen’s bill doesn’t include? Allowing the Utility and Transportation Commission more access to inspect pipelines on private property.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Smith says. “Third-party inspection based on reliable standards should not be a big fight.”

Huh, “should not.” Welcome to the Washington state legislature, where “will not be a big fight” is rarely guaranteed.