All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

KQED report: Chevron expansion project

Repost from KQED Science

Chevron Tries Again With Richmond Refinery Revamp

 Molly Samuel, KQED Science | April 14, 2014

The rust-red painted tanks of Chevron’s Richmond refinery are a familiar sight for drivers in the East Bay. The facility, sprawling across about four and a half miles at the foot of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, is the biggest refinery in Northern California.

It was built in 1902. Picture those black and white photos of Victorian ladies after the 1906 earthquake. The refinery was already here, chugging along.

“There was pretty much nothing else here. It just looked like an open plain,” said Chevron’s Brian Hubinger.

Today, according to the company, one out of every five cars on the road in the Bay Area is driving with gas from here, and two-thirds of the jet fuel used at Bay Area airports starts here.

Now Chevron is looking to launch a billion-dollar construction project at the refinery. It’s a slimmed down version of a project that environmentalists stopped with a lawsuit a few years ago.

After that legal battle and a fire at the refinery in 2012, Chevron is trying to win back the community’s trust not only with a new environmental impact report on the project, but also with a company-published local news website and billboards celebrating the city of Richmond, and TV ads supporting the proposed project.

A view of the Chevron refinery from its wharf, where ships deliver crude oil. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

A view of the refinery from its wharf, where ships deliver crude oil. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Hubinger, the technical advisor for what Chevron’s calling its modernization project took me on a tour of the facility. (Critics of the project are more apt to call it an “expansion.”) We drove to the end of the wharf where tankers full of oil from the Middle East and Alaska unload, and then back into the heart of the refinery, past right-angled tangles of pipeline.

We parked near what looked like a brown barn on stilts: Chevron’s half-built hydrogen plant. That’s how much the company was able to construct before a state court judge stopped the project in 2010. This plant would produce more hydrogen, more efficiently, than the existing one does.

Chevron wants the upgrade — and other changes it’s proposing — because hydrogen helps clean the sulfur out of crude oil. And the company wants to refine crude that has more sulfur in it.

The partially-built hydrogen plant. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

The partially-built hydrogen plant, the “barn on stilts.” (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

“It provides flexibility to the refinery to remain competitive in the future,” Hubinger said.

Chevron won’t say exactly where that oil would be coming from, but the refinery can only receive crude via ship. So this is not about using trains to bring in oil from Canada’s tar sands or North Dakota’s Bakken formation, the company says. Instead, the project would allow Chevron to process crude from declining oil fields, which are often higher in sulfur.

Here’s another case where, like “modernization” versus “expansion,” the language drives a point of view: Opponents call the crude that’s higher in sulfur “dirty.” In the oil industry, they call it “sour.”

There’s no debating, though, that sulfur is an impurity in crude oil, and that processing higher sulfur crude will affect emissions at the refinery.

“Whatever Chevron says, we have to look at the truth and not accept their word for it,” said Andrés Soto, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE).

CBE, with other partner organizations, was the group that won the lawsuit to stop the earlier project. CBE argued, and a state judge agreed, that Chevron hadn’t provided enough information about how the project would affect air pollution.

Andrés Soto is the Richmond organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Andrés Soto in Atchison Village, a neighborhood near Chevron’s Richmond refinery. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

“Chevron refused to disclose the crude slate quality that they would process as a result of this project,” Soto said. “If they were going to expand their hydrogen production, that was because they were going to be processing dirtier crude.”

Unlike Chevron’s last attempt at the project, this time its environmental impact report does provide details on the amount of air pollution that will be created. And it describes how Chevron will try to offset that pollution.

“Our commitments for no net increase are: no net increase in criteria air pollutants, no net increase in health risk and no net increase in greenhouse gas,” said Nicole Barber, a spokeswoman for Chevron. (Criteria air pollutants are particulates that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates for human and environmental health, such as lead, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.)

Greenhouse gas emissions could go up by 15 percent or more if this project happens, but, Barber said, Chevron would offset that by buying carbon credits, giving money to greenhouse gas reduction programs in Richmond and making changes on-site like using LED lighting and reusing water. That’s on the climate change side.

In terms of emissions that could make people sick — toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants – Barber said Chevron will offset those, too. The company’s proposals include installing new burners that lower nitrogen oxide emissions and replacing three tanker ships with newer ships that have more efficient engines.

That’s all according to the environmental impact report. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates emissions, and CBE have both said they’re still examining the report, and have no comment yet on whether the details Chevron provides are thorough and sufficient.

“We know they are claiming there will be no net increase in emissions,” said Soto. “And that sounds great. Except that the current level of emissions are already killing us. We have disproportionately high rates of cancers, asthma, other autoimmune diseases.”

Richmond is an industrial area. There are other refineries, shipping, trucking and factories. And year in and year out, Chevron’s refinery is one of the biggest polluters in the Bay Area.

Pipes inside the refinery. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Pipes inside the refinery. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Soto said the 2012 fire at the refinery is an extreme example of the health risks a refinery poses. The fire released a dark plume of smoke into the sky and sent more than 10,000 people to the hospital complaining of breathing problems

“That was an episodic exposure,” he said. “But then there’s the persistent and prolonged every day exposure that also happens.”

Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she wants the project and the 1,000 construction jobs it’s expected to create, but she also wants to make sure it’s safe. And she sees it as a chance to push Chevron for lower emissions.

“How often do we have an opportunity to determine whether or not to permit a $1 billion expansion project from a large refinery?” she said.

The draft environmental impact report is open for public comment until May second. The planning commission could vote on it as soon as this summer. There’s a public hearing on the project this week on Thursday night.

    Valero – A Critical Look at the Corporation’s many failures

    Repost from Corporate Watch
    [Editor: It may be helpful to set out some facts – complete with footnotes – concerning Valero Energy Corporation’s abysmal record on Biofuels, Environmental Racism, Air Pollution, Water Pollution, Safety and Wrongful Deaths, Anti-Competition, Iraq, Property Assessment Challenges, and CEO Pay.  Note that these facts pertain to the international corporation, not to our single Valero refinery in Benicia.  Nonetheless, Valero’s corporate culture is the locus for strategic planning, and individual refineries are beholden to support their superiors in Texas.
    These facts fly in the face of my personal position: I find fault with Valero’s crude-by-rail proposal, but I also appreciate much about the way our local refinery conducts itself.  Valero’s local safety record, its generous civic and charitable contributions, and its contribution to Benicia’s tax base are not to be overlooked.  If our local Valero executives can stand up to their Texas superiors with sound arguments against crude by rail, maybe we can turn this thing around together.  I know, most will say “fat chance,” and they likely are right.  Anyway, take note of this history of corporate “crimes.”   – RS]

    Valero Energy Corporation – A Corporate Profile by Corporate Watch UK

    OVERVIEW

    CORPORATE CRIMES

    Valero has an appalling environmental record, being responsible for major air and water pollution from its refineries on numerous occasions.  It has funded climate change deniers, fiercely opposed carbon reduction legislation and is one of the companies most heavily invested in the toxic Canadian tar sands.  The company is also a major player in the biofuels business, owning 10 bio-ethanol plants across the US.  For details of Valero’s links to the tar sands industry see ‘Valero and the tar sands’ section.

    In addition to environmental criticism of the company, Valero has been the centre of a host of other controversies, including safety issues, political influence, labour disputes, wrongful death lawsuits, excessive CEO pay and war profiteering.

    Biofuels

    Valero also produces ethanol from ten plants in the US by fermenting corn starch with yeast. Biofuels and bioenergy are associated with a host of problems, including deforestation, destroying indigenous communities, soil depletion, reducing biodiversity and land grabs, and are themselves a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Both corn and ethanol produced from corn are heavily subsidised in the US, and this, combined with financial incentives for biofuels, has had a dramatic impact on global grain prices and contributed to food shortages, famine and food riots.[21]

    Valero is also investing in more advanced ‘second generation’ biofuels, such as those produced from cellulose. [22] However fundamental issues with fuel produced from biomass still apply. Even if land used to produce the biofuels (or agrofuels) does not compete directly with agricultural land, it can still have indirect effect on land prices, and indirect land use change can substantially increase overall carbon intensity of the fuel. Even so called ‘waste’ biomass is problematic as agricultural practices rarely waste biomass, it is usually used as animal feed or fertiliser, for example. Ultimately conversion from fossil fuels to agrofuels is not a sustainable solution to the worlds energy needs, it would require the transformation of vast tracks of land and could exacerbate climate change rather than mitigate against it.

    Valero has invested in various companies aiming to commercialise emerging alternative biofuels such as “green” diesels from algae, from municipal-landfill solid waste and from animal-fat grease and used cooking oil.

    Environmental Racism

    In 1994, the state of Texas and the City of Corpus Christi were accused of environmental racism by two grassroots community groups in Texas’ Nueces County. People Against Contaminated Environments (“PACE”) and the American GI Forum of Texas (“AGIT”) filed a Title VI (Civil Rights Act of 1964) complaint alleging that, due to the existence of the Valero refinery, people of colour residents of Texas and Corpus Christi respectively were discriminated against by having their environmental protection and public health needs ignored.

    According to the Political Economy Research Institute, 59% of people exposed to Valero’s air pollutants, including ammonia, sulfuric acid, and benzene, are minorities. [23]

    Air Pollution

    In March 2010 Valero Energy was Ranked 12th in the Political Economy Research Institute list of the top 100 air polluters in the United States (based on quantity and toxicity of emissions), having released 4.13 million pounds (1.88 million kilos) of toxic air pollutants in 2006.[24]

    In its relatively brief history, Valero has received huge fines on numerous occasions for violations of air pollution legislation. These are some the most significant incidents:

    April 2008 – In a settlement with The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), Valero agreed to pay a penalty of $905,796 and fund community projects worth $977,808. The settlement followed allegations of dozens of air pollution violations during 2005, 2006 and early 2007 at Valero’s refinery in Greenwich Township. The NJDEP cited Valero for exceeding overall emissions limits, violating stack-emission testing requirements, exceeding emission standards for pollutants during stack tests and various other violations.[25]

    August 2007 – Valero agreed to a $4.25 million fine and additional expenditure of $147 million on pollution controls at its refineries in Port Arthur (TX), Memphis (TN), and Lima (Ohio). The settlement with EPA/DoJ required Valero to spend $1 million on support for a local health centre treating residents suffering respiratory illnesses who are not covered by health insurance. Days before the announcement, Valero was heavily criticised at a town hall gathering for two recent incidents: a release of toxic gas from its Port Arthur refinery on 28 July, which hospitalised some residents living near the plant, and a fire at the refinery on 8 August. [26]

    June 2005 – Valero pledged to install $700 million in pollution controls and pay a $5.5 million penalty to settle a five-state/US EPA joint complaint following alleged violations of federal air-pollution law. The settlement was one of the largest the EPA reached since it started investigating the refining industry in 2000 due to widespread concerns over compliance and enforcement.[27]

    April 2005 – In a settlement of alleged Clean Air Act violations between 2001 and 2004 at its Paulsboro (NJ) refinery, Valero was fined $793,000 by the New Jersey DEP. The company was ordered to pay a further $3.5 million to install emission controls, intended to reduce nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from its waste water treatment plant.[28]

    2001 – Following repeated flaring of large volumes of sulfur dioxide between 1994 and 1998, Valero Refining was ordered to install a backup Sulfur Recovery Unit at their Corpus Christi refinery.[29]

    2000 – Texas Natural Resources Commerce Commission forced Valero to pay a $174,455 penalty following alleged violations involving record keeping deficiencies and emissions exceedancies at its Texas City refinery.[30]

    Water Pollution

    A partial settlement between a dozen oil companies, including Valero Energy, and public water providers in 17 states was reached in December 2008. The litigation concerned groundwater contamination from the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), which had been used despite the fact that “No human health studies or long-term carcinogenicity studies on animals were conducted by the oil companies prior to adding MTBE to the nation’s gasoline supply”. The oil companies were required to Pay $422 million, and treat wells for MTBE over the next thirty years.[31]

    In 2008 Valero Refining-Texas, L.P. agreed to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act following a spill of 3,400 barrels of oil into the Corpus Christi Ship Channel on June 1, 2006. Under the consent decree, Valero agreed to pay a $1.65 million civil penalty and perform a supplementary environmental project costing approximately $300,000.[32]

    In January 2006 the New Jersey Department for Environment Protection announced an agreement made with Valero Refining Company that the company would preserve four properties totalling 615 acres as compensation to the public for ground water pollution at its oil refinery in Greenwich.[33]

    Safety and Wrongful Deaths

    In 2005 two workers suffocated while carrying out maintenance at Valero’s Delaware refinery, resulting in wrongful death lawsuits against the company in February 2006. According to evidence used in the lawsuits, the two men working for contractor Matrix Service Co were asphyxiated while retrieving a roll of duct tape that had fallen into a refinery reactor. Valero blamed the deaths on the victims, saying they hadn’t followed safety instructions. Others disputed this, asserting that a work permit gave no warning of suffocation hazards as required.

    It was reported that Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Valero the previous year for failing to adequately oversee handling of work permits, and supervisors were unconcerned about discipline for violations. (Jeff Montgomery, “Valero staffing an issue in deaths,” Wilmington News Journal, 5/17/07). In addition, the company was accused of neglecting safety while rushing the refining system back into service to take advantage of high fuel prices.

    One of the cases, brought by survivors of John A. Lattanzi, was settled in 2008 for an undisclosed amount. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded that the deaths were in part due to “inadequate” warnings and barriers around an opening in the tank where the men died, and that managers had failed to give the workers adequate written notice of the suffocation hazard. There were also claims of destruction of evidence against Valero and disputes over expert testimony.[34]

    According to the Federal Contractor Misconduct database, it was reported that the case brought by the family of John Ferguson was settled in 2010 for an undisclosed amount.[35]

    A previous wrongful death claim associated with the same refinery was settled for $36 million in 2003. (Jeff Montgomery, “Suit in worker’s death: Valero put ‘profits over safety’,” Wilmington News Journal, 2/8/06). This followed a fatal explosion and fire in 2001, also at the same plant, which led to tough new laws on storage tanks and tens of millions of dollars in criminal and civil fines and penalties. Valero sold the plant in June 2010 to subsidiaries of PBF Energy Company LLC for $220 million.[36]

    See here for a chronology of problems at the Delaware Refinery (Source: Wilmington News Journal, 11/7/05)

    -March 2005: State regulators warn refinery managers about concerns over leaks, fires and risk of catastrophe. -January 2005: 12,500 pound propane leak. -September 2004: 20,000 and 9,000 pound butane leaks. -February 2004: 11,000 pound propylene/butane leak. -May 2003: Chemical reaction bursts a tank roof open, releasing 25,000 pounds of acid and 15,000 pounds of hydrocarbons, forcing employees to flee for their lives. (Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended a $132,000 fine). -March 2002-August 2003: Excessive releases of carbon monoxide and other pollutants. (237,500 fine by Delaware). -July 17, 2001: Explosion and fire in a sulfuric acid tank kills one man, cripples several others and releases more than one million gallons of gasoline-laced acid. -April 2001: State regulators file criminal pollution charge accusing refinery managers of twice neglecting caustic chemical leaks that damaged the environment. -May 2000: Worker burned by pipe failure. -December 1997: Four workers injured when a tank explosion splashes them with a caustic chemical.

    Valero has been involved in numerous other safety incidents and lawsuits, including:

    -An accident involving the release of sulfur dioxide at Valero’s refinery in east Houston in 2006, sending 28 workers to hospital for treatment of respiratory complaints.[37]

    -A fire at the Valero McKee refinery in Sunray, Texas, in February 2007. Three workers were seriously burned, and the entire refinery was shut down and evacuated. In July 2008, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released a final investigation report that concluded the refinery did not have an effective programme to identify and address the risk of pipe failure due to freezing and the hazards posed by fire exposure to neighbouring equipment. [38]

    -In 2008 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed penalties totalling $101,750 for various violations including 13 alleged serious violations at Valero’s Port Arthur, Texas.[39]

    Anti-Competition

    Valero acquired various other companies in the refining business, growing from the fourteenth-largest US refiner at the outset of 2000 to the largest in 2005 with the $8billion acquisition of Premcor Inc. This raised concerns that the wave of mergers had reduced the number of refineries and companies in the wholesale market, resulting in increased market concentration, failure to build new capacity to relieve increased demand and therefore increased cost to the consumer.

    The US Federal Trade Commission only agreed to Valero’s $6 billion merger with Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Corporation in 2001 after forcing Valero to shed Ultramar’s Golden Eagle Refinery, bulk gasoline supply contracts, and 70 Ultramar retail service stations in Northern California.[40]

    Iraq

    Valero was one of the first companies to receive oil from Iraq after the US invasion. It was amongst ten other companies to win contracts to buy Iraq’s new oil production of Basra Light crude, covering production from Mina Al-Bakr port in southern Iraq from August to December 2003.[41]

    In 2004, Valero received a subpoena to give documents to the Iraq Food for Oil enquiry, investigating alleged improprieties in the programme.[42]

    Property Assessment Challenges

    Valero has a track record of aggressively pursuing property assessment lawsuits as a way of recovering money spent on property taxes. In 2006 Valero filed 150 lawsuits against 42 appraisal districts in 85 Texas courts.[43]

    CEO Pay

    Valero has come under sustained criticism for paying excessive CEO salaries. The total figure received by CEO’s is often (deliberately made) difficult to calculate, as it can include basic salaries, bonuses, stocks and options and various other forms of compensation and calculations of stock values.

    According to Forbes magazine, William R Klesse, who has been CEO of Valero Energy for five years, received total compensation of $8.07 million in 2011 and a total five year compensation of $53.39 million.[44]

    Figures quoted elsewhere claim that, according to the company’s proxy, William R Klesse received $15 million in 2007: salary, $1.5 million; bonus, $3.7 million; stock awards, $5.5 million; options, $3 million; deferred pay of $1.1 million, plus other pay of $117,110.[45]

    The Institute of Policy Studies quote a figure for previous CEO William Greehey’s total compensation in 2005 as $95.2 million, adding that it would take the average energy company construction worker 4,279 years to equal what Greehey collected in a year.[46]


    References

    [1]www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-21/use-of-corn-for-fuel-in-u-s-is-increasing-prices-globally-fao-chief-says.html
    [2]www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/1937195/valero-pumps-usd50m-wood-biofuel-plant
    [3] http://data.rtknet.org/tox100/2010/index.php?search=yes&company1=25149&chemfac=chem&advbasic=bas&sortp=airrel
    [4]www.peri.umass.edu/toxic_index/
    [5]http://contractormisconduct.org/ass/contractors/94/cases/931/1226/valero-marketing-and-supply-greenwich-township_pr.pdf
    [6]www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/August/07_enrd_626.html
    [7]www.chron.com/news/article/Refiner-Valero-to-make-environmental-upgrades-1563672.php
    [8]www.nj.gov/dep/newsrel/2005/05_0043.htm
    [9]www.crocodyl.org/wiki/valero_energy
    [10]www.valero.com/Financial%20Documents/Form%2010-K%202006.pdf
    [11]www.businesswire.com/news/home/20080508005464/en/Water-Contamination-Suit-Results-Historic-Settlement
    [12]http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/dc57b08b5acd42bc852573c90044a9c4/b4a9cb157a51ec7d85257464007354dd!OpenDocument
    [13]www.nj.gov/dep/newsrel/2006/06_0001.htm
    [14]www.jerebeasleyreport.com/2008/12/valero-settles-one-wrongful-death-lawsuit/
    [15]http://contractormisconduct.org/index.cfm/1,73,222,html?CaseID=618
    [16]http://blog.chron.com/newswatchenergy/2010/06/valero-sells-delaware-city-refinery/
    [17]www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl/2006_4204272/valero-leak-prompts-evacuation-sulfur-dioxide-gas.html
    [18]www.csb.gov/investigations/detail.aspx?SID=12
    [19]www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=15083
    [20]www.ftc.gov/opa/2001/12/valero.shtm
    [21]http://knowmore.org/wiki/index.php?title=To_the_Victors_Go_the_Spoils_of_War
    [22]http://agonist.org/20060303/valero_subpoenaed_for_records_in_iraq_oil_for_food_program
    [23]www.crocodyl.org/wiki/valero_energy
    [24]www.forbes.com/lists/2011/12/ceo-compensation-11_William-R-Klesse_ZJO9.html
    [25]http://blog.mysanantonio.com/clockingin/2008/03/valeros-ceo-earned-15-million-in-2007/
    [26]http://economiajusta.org/files/pdf/ExecutiveExcess2006.pdf
    [Editor – the footnotes are truncated at #26 in the source, and I am unable to locate the lost footnotes online. – RS]

      Council opposes crude by rail in Vancouver, WA – safety issues

      Repost from The Oregonian
      [Editor – Significant quote: “a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.”  – RS]

      Fiery oil train accidents heighten scrutiny of major Vancouver, WA rail terminal

      By Rob Davis | April 11, 2014
       
      Port of Vancouver oil terminal – 2.  The Port of Vancouver’s rail loop would be used to unload 360,000 barrels of oil daily from trains. (Courtesy of Port of Vancouver)

      Building the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Pacific Northwest was never going to escape controversy, not in a region with a robust environmental lobby.

      But for a planned terminal in Vancouver, Wash., a series of fiery oil train explosions has expanded opposition and heightened scrutiny of a project promising to be a bellwether for a growing number of facilities in development along the West Coast.

      Tesoro Corp., a major oil refiner, and Savage Cos., a supply chain logistics manager, are proposing to bring four loaded oil trains a day through the Columbia River Gorge into Vancouver, where crude would be loaded on barges bound for West Coast refineries. The terminal could process 131 million barrels of oil annually, seven times more than trains hauled through Washington last year.

      Trains and trade are an indelible part of Vancouver’s identity. Roughly 75 trains move daily through the city, which traces its history to being a hub of the Pacific Northwest’s 19th century fur trade.

      GS.00036566A_IT.OIL.TERMINAL-02.jpg.jpeg

      But a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.

      “We’re pushing a margin of safety that we’re not ready to deal with,” Councilman Larry J. Smith, a retired Army infantryman, said at a recent meeting. “The accidents sort of prove that. We have a ways to go to prove that we’re safe and secure and taking care of our citizens.”

      Oil trains today aren’t as safe as they could be. Most tank cars moving oil are outdated models. While the federal government is tightening safety standards, new rules aren’t expected before late 2014. Upgrading the country’s rail fleet could take as long as a decade.

      Meanwhile, the characteristics of the North Dakota oil moving by rail remain poorly understood. Before oil trains exploded, crude wasn’t thought to be especially flammable. But samples show that oil moving through Vancouver into Oregon is saturated with more propane and other flammable gases than comparable types of crude.

      Those uncertainties led the Port of Portland to reject crude-by-rail terminals until safety gaps are addressed. But in Vancouver, the port has pushed ahead, with top leaders saying they believe stronger safety standards will be place by the time the project – worth $45 million over 10 years in lease revenue to the port – finishes a state permitting process expected to take a year or longer.

      The port had a warning that the project would be more controversial than it expected. The agency approved its lease with Tesoro-Savage less than three weeks after the first oil train accident, which killed 47 people in Quebec last July.

      After that accident, port and company representatives said something similar couldn’t happen in Vancouver. The Quebec accident, they said, happened on a short-line railroad with different standards than the main-line track that the BNSF Railway Co. operates in Vancouver. That was reinforced when a second accident happened on a short-line operator’s track in Alabama in November.

      Then came a third oil train explosion in December – on a main line BNSF operates in North Dakota.

      North Dakota oil train derailmentA string of train accidents involving crude oil from North Dakota have created massive fireballs, including this one outside Casselton, N.D., in December 2013. Bruce Crummy/The Associated Press

      Todd Coleman, the Port of Vancouver’s executive director, said his agency may have approached the project differently and gotten safety questions answered up front if it had known more accidents would follow. But Coleman said he is still confident that the project’s state permitting process will make it as safe as it can be.

      In the meantime, Coleman has traveled to Washington, D.C., advocating for regulators, railroads and Tesoro-Savage to improve oil train safety.

      The port recently commissioned a safety study that concluded the risks of an oil train derailment on its track are very low and recommended $500,000 in rail improvements the agency pledged to make. The study didn’t examine the chances of human-caused errors, the leading cause of rail accidents.

      And the port has yet to approve a separate Tesoro-Savage safety plan, which Coleman said could “conceivably” allow the port to require tighter safeguards if federal regulations don’t catch up.

      “It’s unfortunate incidents that have happened, absolutely,” Coleman said. “But it will make it safer in the future.”

      That hasn’t assuaged fears among people Jack Burkman talks to. The three-term Vancouver city councilman and other elected officials say they’ve been barraged by questions from worried residents.

      “I’m stopped everywhere in town by people I never would’ve expected to be concerned about this,” said Burkman, a retired engineer. “There’s too much lack of understanding. While the likelihood of an accident may be really, really low, the problems we’ve seen have been horrific. That’s what people are having a hard time wrapping their arms around.”

      The project, which could employ 120, is clearly important to Tesoro. After City Council members announced last month that they would oppose the project, Tesoro executives immediately flew into town to meet with business leaders and the local newspaper to press their case.

      Loading oil on barges in Vancouver would allow the company to move North Dakota crude to its California refineries for less than the full rail journey would cost. It could export Canadian crude or move U.S.-produced crude if the oil industry successfully lobbies to lift a ban on exporting domestic supplies.

      A Wall Street analyst who follows Tesoro said the terminal faces a tougher permitting process amid rising opposition to crude-by-rail terminals.

      “It’s a bit ahead of other projects and it’s a bit bigger, so it’s a bit more of an indicator relative to these smaller projects about whether they get approved,” said Allen Good, a Morningstar analyst. “If it does get stopped, it will give a lot of momentum to groups opposing other crude-by-rail facilities.”

      One of the project’s most prominent opponents is Barry Cain, a developer working on a $1 billion waterfront redevelopment of a former Boise Cascade paper mill. He’s an unlikely opponent: A businessman who praises the domestic crude boom for helping the United States reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

      IMG_3364.JPG
      A rendering of the waterfront redevelopment project that developer Barry Cain is working on in Vancouver, Wash.Rob Davis/The Oregonian

      Three oil trains a day already move past Cain’s development site, on the key BNSF line that connects to refineries in northern Washington. But the terminal would bring four more. Cain said he worries that fear about exploding oil trains will damage property values, make financing or insurance harder to find and dissuade potential development partners.

      “We don’t want to lead any fight,” Cain said of his development partners. “We’re all businesspeople, we’re not the type who’d normally be opposed to this. It’s good to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. But this affects the project we’re working on.”

      Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will have to approve or reject the project if it clears a quasi-judicial process being led by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Inslee has not taken any position on it.