Washington state judge denies Shell appeal on rail project review
HOUSTON | By Kristen Hays, May 21, 2015 11:34pm BST
A judge on Thursday denied Royal Dutch Shell’s appeal of a ruling that a proposed oil-by-rail project at its Washington state refinery must undergo a full environmental review, just two weeks after a crude train derailment caused a fire in North Dakota.
Shell had appealed a February ruling from a Skagit County Office of Land Use Hearings examiner that the plan to move 70,000 barrels per day of inland crude to its 145,000 bpd Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes must be comprehensively reviewed.
In 2014, the county said the project did not need that much scrutiny to get a permit, prompting challenges from several environmental organizations.
On Thursday, a Skagit County Superior Court judge denied Shell’s appeal, according to court officials.
The denial came two weeks after an eastbound crude train derailed in North Dakota, the latest in a spate of fiery mishaps since 2013 that have stoked fears about moving oil by rail.
Shell had sought to limit the review’s scope to exclude railroad issues overseen solely by federal regulators, but said it remains committed to working with the county and other agencies to finish the permitting process.
Shell’s refining competitors in Washington have been bringing in U.S. crudes by rail since 2012 to displace more expensive imports and declining Alaskan oil output. Shell was the last to seek oil-by-rail permits in late 2013, but by then opponents had taken notice of train crashes and safety concerns.
The rail issue is not Shell’s only concern in the state. The company also faces opponents to its plan to use the port city of Seattle to ready rigs before they travel to the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.
(Reporting By Kristen Hays. Editing by Andre Grenon)
Repost from KPLU 88.5, Seattle WA [Editor: Does this sound familiar? …EXACTLY the same story here in Benicia. Significant quote: “Skagit County has extended the public comment period on the proposal and is accepting written testimony via its website through Feb. 5.” – RS]
Proposed Oil-By-Rail Expansion At Shell’s Anacortes Refinery Drawing Crowds
The company says it needs to be able to receive Bakken crude by rail to remain competitive.
Declining oil production in Alaska means more is coming from the American Midwest — by train instead of by boat.
And Tom Rizzo, general manager of Shell’s Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes, says his is now the only one in the Northwest that can’t take in crude by rail.
“The other four refineries all have these rail facilities and currently have the capability of bringing in Bakken crude,” Rizzo said. “So, having a rail facility at our site similar to what they all have at their sites is important to our long-term competitive position.”
He says the proposal to receive about one train a day of crude — or about 60,000 barrels — would not increase their production overall. Skagit County decided in April that the change wasn’t significant enough to require an environmental impact statement. After public outcry, the county added a series of conditions.
But Kristin Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, says that’s not enough. She filed an appeal with the county on behalf of several local community groups. The mile-long trains would cross Washington and head up the Interstate 5 corridor before passing through Mount Vernon and Burlington to get to Puget Sound. She says the entire area is exposed to the potential for train derailments and devastating fires, like the one in Quebec that killed 47 people.
“Washington is at the receiving end — and not in a good way — of a huge increase in fossil fuel transportation by rail. And if your town is on the rail line, you are staring at really monumental risks and impacts,” Boyle said.
According to permitting documents filed by Shell, the Anacortes proposal will move more than a million cubic yards of dirt and cost about a hundred million dollars, for the oil train terminal construction alone.
“And then factor on top of that public health risks, risks to marine life if there was a spill, risks to water quality and then ultimately the greenhouse gas emissions,” Boyle said. “It is certainly a project that demands full review.”
Nationally, Shell has pledged to use only modern rail cars and says the most explosive additives in Bakken crude are being phased out.
Locally, Rizzo says Shell will comply with whatever authorities decide. He says the company has worked on the permit for two years to ensure good outcomes.
“We have designed this facility with the highest standards of safety and environmental protection in mind,” Rizzo said.
For example, he says they worked with the Swinomish Tribe and other local agencies to add fish-friendly culverts to an area where the main rail tracks enter Shell’s property near I-5. He says this will allow juvenile salmon to migrate from Fidalgo Bay into nearby waterways, in an area where they are currently blocked.
The refinery provides jobs for about 750 people. A group that formed to support plans for a coal terminal in Bellingham, The Northwest Jobs Alliance, submitted a letter supporting Shell’s oil train proposal. It says requiring a full EIS every time there is a change to an existing operation is unreasonable and comes from people seeking to deindustrialize the economy.
Skagit County has extended the public comment period on the proposal and is accepting written testimony via its website through Feb. 5.
Should shipments of oil by rail be kept secret from the public?
Posted on June 4, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
Several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil erupt in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30. It was the latest in a series of oil train accidents. Nobody was killed, but much of downtown Lynchburg was evacuated. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)
The nation’s railroads were told last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation that they must notify state emergency management officials about the volume, frequency and county-by-county routes used in cross country shipment of volatile North Dakota crude oil.
But a hitch has developed in Washington, where refineries at Anacortes and Cherry Point north of Bellingham are increasingly relying on oil by rail.
In its order, the Department of Transportation, siding with the railroads, said the information ought to be kept secret from the public.
The DOT told state emergency preparedness agencies to “treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need to know and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.”
The BNSF and Union Pacific Railroads have sent the state drafts of confidentiality agreements that would restrict access to what the shippers call “security sensitive information.”
On Wednesday, however, spokesman Mark Stewart of state Emergency Response Commission told the Associated Press that the railroads’ request conflicts with one of Washington pioneering open government laws.
The confidentiality agreements “require us to withhold the information in a manner that’s not consistent with the Public Records Act,” Stewart told the AP.
The US DOT order came in the wake of a series of oil train fires, most recently train cars catching fire in Lynchburg, Virginia and dumping “product” into the James River.
This follows a deadly runaway trail explosion last year that leveled the downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people, as well as an explosion and fire near Casselton, North Dakota.
Lawmakers, notably Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, have pressed the Transportation Department to speed implementation of new safety rules that would require phaseout of 1960′s-vintage, explosion vulnerable DOT 111 tank cars.
The Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes accepted its first trainload of oil in September of 2012. The shipments have soared, with 17 million barrels of oil coming into the state by rail in 2013. Trains carry as many as 50,000 barrels of crude oil to the Tesoro refinery.
And Tesoro wants to build a $100 million rail-to-barge terminal in the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River. It would be the largest such terminal in the Northwest, capable of receiving 380,000 barrels of oil a day. The Vancouver City Council voted earlier this week to oppose the project.
Shell Anacortes is in the process of creating a facility that would take 100-car oil trains. The BP Refinery at Cherry Point is also receiving oil by rail.
All told, according to a Sightline Institute study, 11 refineries and ports in Washington and Oregon are either receiving oil by rail, or have projects underway to receive rail shipments of oil.
The shipments head by rail through cities in both Eastern and Western Washington.
The railroads have been highly secretive about their operations. They are regulated by the federal government under the Interstate Commerce Act, leaving cities and local governments with almost no rights to request information or limit operations.
The BNSF has promised to purchase 5,000 newer, safer tank cars, and Tesoro has pledged to phase out use of the DOT-111 cars this year.