Tag Archives: Anacortes WA

NRDC Attorney: The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

Repost from NRDC Switchboard, Danielle Droitsch’s Blog

The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

Danielle Droitsch
Danielle Droitsch, senior attorney with NRDC, Canada Project Director, International Program.

By Danielle Droitsch, April 28, 2015

Many across the United States are aware of the tar sands threat posed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline but what many may not know is the U.S. faces a looming threat that is bigger than just this one pipeline. We call it a tar sands invasion. The plan would be to complete a network of pipelines (both new and expanded), supertankers and barges, and a fleet of explosive railway tank cars. What is at risk? San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and other places we all call home. While the threat of this invasion is already here with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the good news is that citizens across North America are rising up to respond and repeal the assault with a clear message: Not by pipeline, not by rail, not by tanker. The good news is that public opposition to tar sands oil is rising and projects like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have been delayed. The tar sands assault is not inevitable. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t need this dirty form of fuel and neither does Canada. The time has come to limit tar sands expansion in favor of a cleaner and brighter energy future.

Tar Sands Invasion Map 4-27-15.jpg

A new report released by NRDC reveals that the amount of tar sands crude moving into and through the North American West Coast could increase by more than 1.7 million barrels per day if industry proposals for pipelines, tankers and rail facilities move forward. For more information about this new information see posts by my colleagues Anthony Swift and Josh Axelrod. Why the west coast? With the majority of the world’s heavy oil refinery capacity, the United States including the west coast is a critical market for the tar sands industry. To be clear, Keystone XL still remains at the heart of the industry plan to expand tar sands and gain access to the global market. But industry is still pushing hard for other ways to expand especially as KXL flounders. It is important to keep in mind the tar sands industry – which currently produces about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) – plans to triple production to exceed 6 million bpd in the next fifteen years. The oil industry has made clear it needs all of its rail and pipeline proposals to achieve its massive production goals.

We know that the tar sands industry and Canadian government has long had a plan to quadruple or more tar sands extraction in Canada. KXL has always been a huge part of that. But it is now very clear that they also plan to access the U.S. and global market through every means possible.

This threatened invasion puts our communities, waters, air and climate in jeopardy. The Tar Sands Solutions Network has done an outstanding job outlining many of the different campaigns that are emerging across North America. This plan threatens to expose communities from California to New York to health, safety and environmental risks unless the public rallies to stop it. Here are some of the specific impacts that North America faces as a result of the tar sands invasion:

  • Across the West Coast, tar sands laden tanker and barge traffic could increase twenty-five fold, with a projected 2,000 vessels along the Pacific West Coast– including the Salish Sea and the Columbia River–shipping nearly two million barrels of tar sands crude every day.
  • A dozen proposed rail terminals would substantially increase tar sands by rail traffic going through densely populated American citizens like Los Angeles and Albany New York risking explosive derailments of hazardous crude unit trains
  • Nearly a million barrels of tar sands would be destined for California and Washington refineries, exposing fenceline communities in Anacortes, San Francisco and Los Angeles to increasing toxic air pollution.
  • In the Midwest, the pipeline company Enbridge is moving to nearly double the flow of tar sands moving through the Great Lakes region, an area that already has suffered from a 2010 spill of more than 800,000 gallons of the tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan sending hundreds of residents to the hospital. Four years later, the cleanup, which has cost more than $1 billion, is still unfinished.
  • On the East Coast, the tar sands industry is seeking to build the Energy East pipeline across Canada. The pipeline would run from Alberta east across Canada to New Brunswick and Quebec, carry 1.1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day and require hundreds of oil tankers traveling along the East Coast and Gulf Coast annually, through critical habitat of the extremely endangered Right Whale.
  • In Albany, New York, a proposed oil transfer facility could lead to the shipment of tar sands oil on barges down the Hudson River or rail cars along the river destined for facilities in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas.
  • In Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the constant threat of a proposed reversal of the aging Portland-Montreal Pipeline is likely to arise again as Enbridge completes work on a pipeline reversal that will connect the tar sands directly to Montreal this summer.
  • This network of pipelines will feed refineries that produce millions of tons of hazardous petroleum coke waste – known as “petcoke” – which are piling up in residential neighborhoods like Chicago.
  • In Canada, pipeline companies are trying to access the west and east costs with pipeline proposals that would ship the heavy tar sands oil across pristine landscapes in British Columbia or across the Prairies into Ontario and Quebec. Communities are raising concerns about the threat of a spill to waters from the pipeline or tankers leaving the Bay of Fundy of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • And last but not least, communities in Alberta at ground zero have been facing the enormous consequences of tar sands development which has brought about significant contamination of water, air, and land. Increasingly, there are calls for a moratorium on development.

Targeting at risk communities

The tar sands invasion puts a high toll on low-income and aboriginal communities located in railway corridors, near oil refineries, and next to petcoke waste sites. In refinery fence-line communities, emissions associated with tar sands are suspected to be even more detrimental to human health than existing harmful emissions from conventional crude. Derailments of tar sands unit trains – mile long trains carrying over a hundred tankers full of explosive tar sands crude – pose a catastrophic risk for communities throughout the country. And as more tar sands oil is refined in the United States, the public will also face increased health and environmental risks from massive piles of petroleum coke, a coal-like waste full of heavy metals that results from tar sands oil refining and can cause serious damage to the respiratory system.

Industry would like for you to believe that tar sands development is inevitable and there is nothing that can be done. Wherever they turn today they are being faced with public opposition. Expansion is not inevitable, especially because of this growing and formidable opposition.

A climate problem

It is clear that tar sands reserves – some of the world’s most carbon intensive – are at the top of the list of reserves that must remain in the ground. Mounting scientific and economic analysis shows that the tar sands industry’s proposed expansion plan is incompatible with global efforts to address climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that 75% or more of discovered fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground in order to limit warming to the international two degrees Celsius goal. The clear inconsistency between tar sands expansion and efforts to address climate change have made opposition to tar sands expansion projects a clear rallying point for a broad group of allies advocating for action on climate.

A water problem

A tar sands spill from train, pipeline, or tanker could devastate local economies, pristine wilderness, harm human health, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup. Tar sands spills have proven more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it difficult to contain or recover. A spill from shipping the tar sands crude could devastate communities, contaminate freshwater supplies or marine habitats and damaging local economies.

Undermining efforts to grow our clean energy economy

The growing exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands threatens to undermine North American efforts to build a clean energy economy and combat global climate change. Because most tar sands crude is destined for the United States, its expansion would create a greater dependence on the world’s dirtiest crude oil and undermine our transition to environmentally sustainable energy and a cleaner transportation fleet. Responding to the tar sands invasion will require solutions reduce fossil fuel use and spur low-carbon transportation and energy solutions such as broadened electric vehicle use and development of renewable and clean fuels.

This tar sands invasion can be stopped: Clean Transportation Solutions

The good news is this tar sands invasion can be stopped starting with leadership from government officials to embrace climate and sustainable transportation solutions. NRDC’s report for the west coast outlines detailed recommendations for decision-makers at all levels. The first step is for decision-makers at all levels to become familiar with the unique issues associated with tar sands oil and then to actively identify the full range of solutions to confront this problem. Without action, the U.S. will unintentionally become a thoroughfare for this oil undermining climate policies and presenting risks to communities and water. With support for regional clean energy policies, we can prevent the influx of tar sands crude and build the green infrastructure and public support necessary to begin transitioning to a clean energy economy.

    Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Seattle Mariners Game?

    Repost from The Stranger, Seattle, WA

    Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Mariners Game?

    By Sydney Brownstone, Apr 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm
    This was taken at around 8:15 p.m. at Tuesday nights Mariners game.
    This was taken at around 8:15 p.m. at Tuesday night’s Mariners game. Courtesy of David Perk

    Maaaaaybe it wasn’t the thrill he was looking for.

    A spectator at Tuesday night’s Mariners game caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a crude-oil unit train moving past Safeco Field.

    The attendee took video and photos while taking a walk behind the scoreboard, but didn’t want to be credited for them. David Perk, a friend of the photographer’s who was also at the game, passed along the images on that person’s behalf. Perk, a volunteer with the Washington Environmental Council, went to the game because of the ticket special to honor local volunteering efforts.

    Perk says he first spotted the train while driving to the game from Renton. “I was wondering if it was going to roll north while having our tailgate party on the side of the tracks,” Perk said. Nearly 14,000 people attended the game, according to Seattle Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale.

    Burlington Northern Santa Fe wouldn’t confirm whether the train was carrying crude, but the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place said that the train was “almost certainly a unit train of crude.” Unit trains often contain a hundred or more tank cars, and can measure as long as a mile. The train was also heading north, which means that it was likely full and heading for refineries near Anacortes or Ferndale.

    Unit trains moving crude from the shale oil fields of North Dakota (also known as “bomb trains”) carry a unique risk of derailing and exploding. The US Department of Transportation has estimated that an average of 10 crude-oil trains will derail a year over the next two decades. The DOT has thus far failed to finalize safety rules for crude-by-rail, but did order a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on unit trains through populated areas last week. On April 14, the Washington State House also passed an oil transportation safety bill sponsored by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle).

    Much of downtown Seattle falls within the crude-oil route’s half-mile blast zone, including Safeco Field, which sits right next to the railroad. But railroads aren’t required to share crude-oil routes with the public. Earlier this month, Seattle’s new fire chief, Howard Scoggins, told reporters that a derailment in Seattle would “exhaust our resources and require assistance from communities around us.”

      Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains

      Repost from High Country News

      Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains

      Many communities fight transport of crude oil through their towns; some find legal footing to succeed.

      By Kindra McQuillan, April 16, 2015, Web Exclusive

      To the Coastal Salish people living on Washington’s Swinomish Reservation, water remains an important aspect of daily life. Their ancestors fished for salmon at the mouths of Northwestern rivers and gathered shellfish on Pacific tidelands; modern Swinomish people still pursue these activities from their small reservation on the Puget Sound. Many fish for their own subsistence, and many work as employees of the Swinomish Fish Company, which serves international markets.

      The Swinomish Reservation is surrounded by water. Swinomish Channel and Swinomish Reservation. Photograph courtesy of Joe Mabel

      Even so, for more than 20 years, the Swinomish have consented to strictly regulated use of a railroad that crosses waters on either side of their island reservation. The track, operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, crosses a swing bridge over Puget Sound’s Swinomish Channel, passes several Swinomish businesses, and then crosses a trestle over Padilla Bay, originally on its way to Anacortes, where it historically delivered lumber. A legal agreement between the tribe and the company limited the amount of traffic that would cross the reservation and waterways to Anacortes and required the company to inform the tribe about its cargo.

      In the 1990s, the last section of railroad to Anacortes was removed, and the tracks ended on March Point, which houses two oil refineries. Burlington Northern fell behind on their annual reports, and the tribe assumed the trains were carrying supplies to the refineries.

      But in 2012, reservation residents began to see 100-car trains—four times as long as the agreed maximum length. Then an Anacortes newspaper reported that the trains were carrying Bakken crude, a volatile oil that has figured in numerous train explosions in recent years, some of them deadly.

      Burlington Northern had not informed the tribe that the cars carried this new, dangerous cargo, and ignored tribal requests to desist. So last week, the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit asks the court to reinforce the original car limit and to prohibit the transport of Bakken crude via rail across the reservation.

      “It’s not a matter of if another train will blow up; it’s a matter of when,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, recently told me. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen in our backyard.”

      Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the day a Bakken oil train derailed, killing 47 people in 2013. Photograph courtesy of Sûreté du Québec.

      But while many Western communities are grasping for protection against dangerous shipments of crude oil, the Swinomish tribe has a unique instrument for getting it done.

      The instrument has to do with the way tribal trust lands work. Tribal trust land, unlike much off-reservation land, requires consent from both the federal government and the tribe before utilities and railroad companies can build infrastructure. But for a century, Burlington Northern and its predecessor companies broke this law by maintaining a railway on the Swinomish reservation without consent from either. In the late 1970s, the tribe sued the company for a century of trespass, reaching a settlement in 1991 that gave the company an easement for continued use of the railway, albeit with a few restrictions: No more than one train could cross the reservation per day in each direction, none could have more than 25 cars, and Burlington Northern would have to inform the tribe of the trains’ cargo at least once per year.

      Then came the Bakken boom, and with it a dramatic increase in traffic as trains rushed to carry oil from the Bakken to the West Coast, where ports could take the fuel to international markets. After seeing the traffic increase on their reservation, “the tribe had conversations with Burlington Northern,” says Stephen LeCuyer, director of the office of tribal attorney. “But in the meantime the tribe was seeing explosive derailments of Bakken oil trains, and reached the conclusion that they would not consent to an increase of over 25 cars per day.” After the tribe brought their concerns to Burlington Northern, the company said it wanted to negotiate. Meanwhile, the oil trains kept rolling.  That led to last week’s suit.

      Burlington Northern has yet to file their case, but in a statement, company spokesperson Gus Melonas argues that it has a legal obligation to carry the oil.  “As a common carrier, we are obligated under federal law to move all regulated products, which ensures the flow of interstate commerce,” he said in a statement.

      “The Easement Agreement includes a mechanism to address rail traffic volumes to meet shipper needs, and we have been working with the Swinomish Tribe for several years to resolve this issue.” The mechanism Melonas refers to is a stipulation in the agreement, wherein the tribe agrees not to “arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars when necessary to meet shipper needs.”

      To the tribes, this mechanism is null. Given the dangerous nature of Bakken crude, the tribe is confident it’s not making an arbitrary decision “in any way,” LeCuyer says.

      Their complaint was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and was formally served on April 10. Burlington Northern must now file a response within 21 days of the formal complaint. At that point, the court will issue a schedule for hearings, and the case will eventually be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.

      Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group that has handled many cases related to oil transportation, said the Swinomish argument appears “airtight.”

      “BNSF made an agreement with them, and it violated that agreement,” he said. But Hasselman added that the case wouldn’t likely set a precedent for other communities. “Their agreement is pretty unique,” he said. “But this is yet another example of communities all across the country in different ways rising up to the threat of crude oil transportation.”

      Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued urgent recommendations calling for the improvement of unsafe oil-tank train cars. Politicians like Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, D, are calling for greater oil train safety.

      Earlier this year, Washington’s Quinault tribe was able to slow shipping of crude-by-rail near their reservation by challenging oil terminals that were being built without an environmental impact statement.

      Meanwhile, the Swinomish Tribe is also testifying against a Canadian pipeline that would carry crude oil to ports in the Salish Sea, the body of water that encompasses the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound. Alternative forms of oil transportation, like pipelines and barges, may be safer to human communities, but they would still put fisheries at risk.

      “We, of course, always have concern about tankers hitting our reefs,” Cladoosby says. “Thank God that has never happened. We live on an island surrounded by water. We’ve lived here since time immemorial, and the Creator has blessed us with every species of wild salmon. We work very hard to take care of it.”

      Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby and his father. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Ecotrust.
      Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern with

      High Country News.