Rolfes’ bill addresses future of oil transportBy Christopher Dunagan
Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:02 p.m.
OLYMPIA — Methods of moving crude oil to market are changing rapidly, and the state must respond just as deftly to protect sensitive water and upland habitats as well as people, according to state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
Rolfes recently introduced a bill known as the Oil Transportation and Safety Act. If approved, the legislation would build upon existing regulations dealing with oil transport by tanker and barge. It also would launch important conversations about transport by rail and pipeline, she said.
“The tricky part to rail,” Rolfes said, “is that we have little regulatory authority at the state level. Railroads are mostly regulated by the federal government.”
Nevertheless, she said, residents of the state have every right to know the amount and types of oil traveling through their communities — especially with increased shipments of the more explosive Bakken oil coming out of Montana and North Dakota and recent train derailments, some resulting in severe fires.
Rolfes’ bill, SB-3589. would require the owner of oil-shipment facilities to report information about oil transport. State officials would aggregate all the information and report quarterly figures. Armed with such information, communities could decide whether federal protections are adequate, she noted.
The bill also calls on the Washington Department of Ecology to evaluate emergency response plans, identify vulnerable areas and propose ideas to increase safety.
The bill also calls on Ecology to consider whether additional tug escorts are needed for large tankers in Puget Sound, where one tug currently is required. Consideration would be given for possible tug escorts on the Columbia River and in Grays Harbor, where tug-escort rules do not apply.
Alaska requires two tug escorts for tankers moving on Prince William Sound, according to officials testifying Wednesday on a companion bill in the House.
As proposed, the legislation would triple the penalties for spilling oil from a barge if the operator acted negligently. The operator would be excused from any negligence claims if at least two qualified people were posted on the bridge of the tug during the duration of the trip.
Rolfes’ bill and the companion House bill, HB-2347, have been declared the top priority this legislative session by the Environmental Priorities Coalition, made up of more than 20 environmental groups working together as a lobbying force.
“The bill doesn’t seek to have answers,” Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the coalition, said during Wednesday’s hearing. “It seeks to ask questions. What jurisdictions do we have? What needs to be studied? What does not need to be studied? The bill raises lots of questions and sets up processes for the answers to come.”
Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline, a member of the coalition, said the state is not prepared for the expected increases in oil shipments by rail. News of train derailments and explosions adds new urgency to the problem, he said.
Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association said Washington already has some of the most stringent oil-spill regulations in the country. With no clear showing that more regulations are needed, the Legislature should delay action until studies of the risks, benefits and economic impacts are completed, he said.
Holmes also was concerned about the release of public information regarding oil transport. Some information could give one company a competitive advantage over another, he said. To protect proprietary information, California has passed a law that spells out what can and cannot be disclosed, he said. The law allows companies to challenge public disclosure in advance, he noted, urging Washington legislators to take a similar approach.
Denise Clifford, governmental relations director for Ecology, said the bill has some good ideas, but her agency cannot officially support it without funding — and none has been provided in the governor’s budget.
Rolfes said she would support some money for Ecology to begin the critical evaluation. Some discussions should include Canada, which is proposing increased tanker traffic through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, she said.
“I don’t believe they are as advanced as we are in preventing oil spills,” she said. “If they (oil tankers) stay in Canadian waters, they can avoid our regulations.”
Rolfes said the Legislature should support prevention of oil spills over cleanup after environmental damage has occurred.
“Every preventive measure we’ve ever taken has been a hard-fought battle,” she said. “A lot of the (existing) laws are really old. We need to talk about whether we need more protection for our waterways, given the huge increase in overwater traffic that is coming.”