May 16, 2015

Oil train bill could improve safety on rails, not on Puget Sound

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Oil train in New York state.

Photo: Harvey Henkelmann/Wikipedia Commons

Oil train in New York state.

Unable to escape visions of derailed oil trains burning ferociously out of control, Washington lawmakers knew it would be difficult for them to return home from Olympia this year without a new law to improve rail safety.

When Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law the legislation that resulted (HB 1449), it was far from the bill he proposed with the backing of an extraordinarily broad coalition including environmentalists, state and local governments, tribes and even river pilots.

Gone was a proposal to better protect Puget Sound from oil spills, including steps to improve safety on barges that transport oil. Also missing were Inslee’s attempt to tax oil carried in pipelines, just like oil transported over the water, and a doubling of that tax rate to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel of oil brought into the state. Inslee would have targeted the new taxes to shore up the state’s struggling oil-spill-safety budget.

“While this bill is a solid step forward, much more work needs to be done when it comes to protecting Puget Sound, funding our oil spill program and federal progress on oil-by-rail safety,” Inslee said.

  • Oil companies and railroads backed the final bill, which provides for:
  • Increased state inspections of rail lines and crossings;
  • Advance notification to first responders about oil-train movements – a key demand by fire chiefs and emergency-management officials, as well as environmentalists;
  • Detailed planning for how to handle spills or fires from rail cars carrying oil and other petroleum products;
  • Evacuation planning along rail lines; and
  • Extending to railroad oil trains the five-cent-a-barrel levy already imposed on oil transported into the state via vessel shipments across water.
  • The episode demonstrates how the GOP-led Senate has gained power to shape legislation. Even with must-pass legislation like the oil-trains bill, Republicans can fend off what they consider the worst excesses by the Democrats, who until 2013 had long run both legislative chambers.

In the end, when lawmakers walked away with an approved bill, the final tally was just one vote shy of unanimous approval in both houses – a remarkable level of agreement in a divided Legislature  where Republicans dominate the Senate and Democrats the House, and bills originating in one legislative body often die a slow death in the other.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who sponsored the House legislation, said lawmakers were strongly motivated by ongoing news reports about fiery train derailments across the country.

“Nobody can argue that these trains are all safe,” said Farrell, chair of the House committee that first passed the legislation.

With support from Inslee, the two-term legislator from suburban Seattle ultimately had to negotiate the final legislation with her counterpart in the Senate, 16-year veteran Republican Doug Ericksen of Ferndale. It took some creative juggling of tax revenues, but they agreed ultimately to deny Inslee the tax increases he sought.

“The Republicans got their talking point of no new taxes,” Farrell said.

Before the legislation passed, state law and oil-spill-safety rules were focused on the traditional method of bringing oil to Washington to be refined: Gigantic tankers hauling crude from Alaska.  Now fewer tank vessels are coming from Alaska and more trains are bringing volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota and Montana.  Tankers in Puget Sound are required to be escorted by tugboats – a condition Democrats tried but failed to take the first steps toward for barges now transporting Bakken oil.

Even the most disappointed environmentalists agreed that the final legislation is a step forward. But failing to regulate pipelines and a growing form of marine transport of oil are crucial shortcomings, said Rebecca Ponzio, oil campaign director for Washington Environmental Council.

“The work is not done, and we need to figure out what happens next,” Ponzio said.

But to do that, environmentalists would have to contend with oil companies and railroads that backed some elements of this year’s bill. Lobbyist Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil companies on the West Coast, said the bill addresses concerns about the transport of crude oil by rail — and that was the intent. He dismissed the need for further protections against oil spills in Puget Sound.

“We have an extremely robust marine oil-spill regime in the state of Washington,” Holmes said. “If you look at what the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard are doing, this is one of the strongest oil spill and response programs in the world.”

Last year, about 19 trains a week moved oil through Washington — each carrying up to 100 tanker cars containing a total of 3 million gallons of oil. In 2013, about 700 million gallons of oil were moved by rail.

Before 2012, there were no big oil trains in the state. By 2020, the number is expected to grow to 137 trains per week if all the proposed oil terminals are constructed, according to a study conducted for the Washington Department of Ecology.

A string of fatal oil-train explosions nationally and in Canada in the months leading up to the legislative session’s launch in January made it nearly a given that some kind of bill would have to pass. Ericksen, whose views often mirror the interests of oil companies, made it clear from the first hearing that he wanted a railroad-safety bill.

“This is a very important issue, from Spokane, Washington, where oil trains enter our state, to Ferndale, Washington, where these oil trains roll through downtown Ferndale — my home town — next to the elementary school where my kids go to school,” Ericksen said.

One of the hardest things to give up in the negotiations with Ericksen, Farrell said, was addressing the safety of oil transport on Puget Sound, including the potential of requiring tugboats to escort oil barges.

Ericksen gave up something, too. He allowed for studies on the Columbia River and Grays Harbor that could lead to tug escorts for oil-carrying vessels. He also gave in to increased fees on railroad companies to pay for eight new state railroad inspectors. Railroad officials contend that federal oversight and their own safety standards are more than adequate.

To get around Republicans’ objections, the negotiators got creative with the oil taxes used to fund both prevention of and response to oil spills. They agreed to a one-time transfer of $2.25 million from the state’s oil-spill response account into the oil-spill prevention account. That will trigger the response account to begin collecting a penny on each barrel of oil until the account returns to the current $9 million – meaning the state will, in fact, start collecting additional taxes. The $2.25 million and the increased revenues from taxes on oil moved by train are expected to pay for most of the new program.

Unfortunately, Farrell said, total revenues do not pay for the full cost of the existing prevention program involving oil transport by water. So the state digs into the State Toxics Control Account for 70 percent of its funding. That account was originally used primarily to pay for the cleanup of toxic-waste sites, but it is now is being spread across a variety of environmental programs, leaving a diminishing amount for toxic cleanup.

If the barrel tax is not increased or other funding approved in the budget two years from now, the shortfall in the oil spill prevention program would reach at least $1.8 million, according to Inslee’s office.

“We were disappointed in the basic funding of the spill program,” said Rob Duff, environmental policy adviser to the governor. “We didn’t solve the funding problem. It was a compromise.”

Sen. Rolfes, who led the Democrats in the Senate, said the final bill must be considered a success.

“This is one of the strongest rail-safety bills in the country,” she said. “Consider all the forces working against it — the big oil and big railroad industry, the conservative anti-tax and anti-regulation beliefs.”

More protections are necessary, Rolfes said: ”I think this bill will only be a failure if we can’t come back and get needed protections for marine waters.”

Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for several environmental groups including Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said failing to approve increased protections for Puget Sound concerns him.

“We’ve set up a whole program with safeguards to address the threat of an oil spill from Alaskan oil tankers coming into U.S. refineries,” he said. “Now we’re changing patterns and the types of vessels on the water.”

Trains coming into Washington are beginning to dock at oil terminals instead of refineries, Wishart said. The oil is then moved locally by vessels, including barges exempt from tug-escort rules and other requirements.

“Barges have not received much attention because we have not had a spill,” Wishart said. “But some of them carry more oil than a tanker. If we were to have a significant spill, it would be catastrophic. It could be the end of an ecosystem. We hope the Legislature will revisit this.”

Ericksen could not be reached for comment on this story.

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