Environmentalists play 'Whac-A-Mole' to stall crude-by-rail projects

EnergyWire | March 20, 2015 | Column by Ellen M. Gilmer and Blake Sobczak

When an oil company's expansion plans for Pacific Northwest crude by rail suffered a major setback last month, environmentalists spread the news just as quickly as they could Google "Skagit County Hearing Examiner."

The little-known local office about an hour north of Seattle holds the keys to land use in the area, and environmental attorneys saw it as the best shot to stall a rail extension considered critical for the delivery of crude oil to a nearby Shell Oil Co. refinery, but potentially disastrous for nearby estuaries and communities.

The effort was successful: After environmental groups appealed a county-level permit for the rail project, Skagit County Hearing Examiner Wick Dufford sent the proposal back to the drawing board, ordering local officials to conduct an in-depth environmental impact statement to consider the broad effects of increased crude-by-rail throughout the county.

"The environmental review done in this case assumes that the whole big ball of federal, state and local regulations will somehow make the trains safe. And that if an accident happens, the response efforts described on paper will result in effective clean up, so that no significant adverse effects are experienced," Dufford wrote. "There is no proven basis for such conclusions."

The decision was an incremental but significant victory for environmental groups, sending a signal to industry that its increasing reliance on railed-in crude could face formidable hurdles.

Skagit County is just one piece of a larger plan to expand crude-by-rail across the country to better connect refineries and ports with prolific oil plays like North Dakota's Bakken Shale. The use of rail to deliver crude oil has skyrocketed in recent years, rising from 9,500 tank cars of crude in 2008 to nearly 500,000 carloads in 2014, according to industry data. Projects in Washington and other refinery hubs aim to expand facilities and extend rail spurs to handle even more crude deliveries.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company is "confident that we can satisfy any remaining issues associated with the project" to add rail capacity to its Puget Sound Refinery in Skagit County.

"This project is critical to the refinery, the hundreds of employees and contractors who depend on Shell, and the regional economy," he said. "We do not feel it should be held to a different standard than the crude-by-rail projects of the neighboring refineries that have been approved."

Smith added that "we all share the top priority of safety."

But the new reality of crude-by-rail traffic has environmentalists on edge. Oil train derailments in Illinois, West Virginia, North Dakota and other places have led to fires, spills and, in one case, lost lives. A 2013 crude-by-rail explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, prompting regulators in the United States and Canada to review the inherently piecemeal rules governing crude-by-rail transportation.

The federal government has authority over certain details, such as standards for tank cars used to haul crude. But most expansion plans and related environmental concerns are left to local agencies situated along oil routes. The result is a hodgepodge of permitting decisions by local authorities following varying state laws, while a team of environmental lawyers challenges expansion projects one by one.

"It's a little bit like Whac-A-Mole because there isn't a big permitting scheme," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who represented six environmental groups in the Skagit County appeal. "It makes it difficult and makes it frustrating for the public."

State laws in play

So far, the Whac-A-Mole approach is working well for environmentalists.

After three oil refineries in Washington went unopposed in building facilities to receive rail shipments of crude oil, Boyles said environmentalists and community advocates began tracking local land-use agencies more closely.

Earthjustice and the Quinault Indian Nation successfully challenged two proposed crude projects in Grays Harbor County, southwest of Seattle, leading a review board to vacate permits and require additional environmental and public health studies. A third Grays Harbor project is also preparing a comprehensive environmental review.

The next project on environmentalists' radar is in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., where Savage Cos. and Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co. have proposed building a new terminal to transfer railed-in crude oil to marine tankers bound for West Coast refineries. The Sierra Club, ForestEthics and several other groups earlier this month moved to intervene in the state agency review process for the project, citing major threats to the Columbia River and public health.

The key to all of these challenges is Washington's State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Similar to the National Environmental Policy Act, SEPA requires government agencies to conduct a broad environmental impact statement for any major actions that may significantly affect the environment.

For projects in Skagit County, Grays Harbor and now Vancouver, state and local officials considering challenges look to SEPA to determine how rigorous environmental review must be, based on whether projects are expected to have major impacts. To Dufford, the Skagit examiner, the answer is plain.

"Unquestionably, the potential magnitude and duration of environmental and human harm from oil train operations in Northwest Washington could be very great," he wrote.

Down the coast in California, environmentalists have an even stronger tool: the California Environmental Quality Act. Considered the gold standard in state-level environmental protection laws, CEQA has already proved useful in halting a crude-by-rail expansion project in Sacramento.

In Kern County, a team of environmental attorneys is also relying on CEQA to appeal construction permits for the Bakersfield Crude Terminal, a project that would ultimately receive 200 tank cars of crude oil per day. The local air quality board labeled the construction permits as "ministerial," bypassing CEQA review, which is required only for projects considered discretionary. A hearing is set for next month in Kern County Superior Court.

Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, who is representing environmental groups in the Bakersfield case, said the state environmental law has been powerful in slowing down the rapid rise of crude-by-rail operations.

"In California, we have CEQA, which is a strong tool," she said. "You can't hide from the law. You can't site your project out in some town that you think won't oppose you."

Unified strategy?

Still, the one-at-a-time approach to opposing crude-by-rail growth is undoubtedly slow-going, and progress comes bit by bit.

Boyles noted that Earthjustice attorneys from Washington to New York frequently strategize to "unify" the issues and make broader advances. On tank cars, for example, environmental groups have come together to press the Department of Transportation to bolster safety rules.

"That at least is some place where you could get improvements that could affect every one of these proposals," she said.

But for expansion projects, the effort must still be localized.

"You have this giant sudden growth of these sort of projects, and that's the best we can do at this point to review each of them and comment," said Forsyth, the California lawyer, who said the end goal is to empower local agencies to control whether proposals move forward and to mitigate the impacts when they do.

Though labor-intense, advocates say the approach has paid dividends. Projects that would have otherwise flown under the radar are now under rigorous review, and industry players no longer have the option of expanding facilities quietly and without public comment.

"If you hadn't had these citizens challenging these projects," Boyles said, "they'd be built already; they'd be operating already."

The delays have set back refiners seeking to use rail to tap price-advantaged domestic crude -- particularly in California.

"The West Coast is a very challenging environment," noted Lane Riggs, executive vice president of refining operations at Valero Energy Corp., which has faced staunch environmentalist opposition at a proposed oil-by-rail terminal in Benicia.

Riggs said in a January conference call that "we're still pretty optimistic we'll get the permit" for the 70,000-barrels-per-day unloading terminal at its refinery there, although he added that "timing at this point is a little bit difficult."

Facing pressure from concerned locals and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Benicia officials last month opted to require updates to the rail project's draft environmental impact review, further delaying a project that was originally scheduled to come online in 2013.

A Phillips 66 crude-by-rail proposal in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., has encountered similar pushback. If approved, the project would add five 80-car oil trains per week to the region's track network. The potential for more crude-by-rail shipments has drawn opposition from several local city councils and regional politicians, despite Phillips 66's pledge to use only newer-model tank cars (EnergyWire, Jan. 27).

Some town leaders have also separately taken action against railroads bringing oil traffic through their neighborhoods, although federally pre-emptive laws leave cities vulnerable to legal challenges (EnergyWire, March 19).

'Business as usual'

Local, often environmentalist-driven opposition is seen as "business as usual" within the refining industry, according to Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

"This is just another extension of the environmental playbook to try to obfuscate and delay," said Drevna, whose trade group represents the largest U.S. refiners. "We've been dealing with that for years, and we're going to continue to be dealing with it."

While Drevna said he doesn't see lawsuits "holding up any of the plans" for refiners to improve access to North American oil production, environmentalists chalk up each slowdown to a victory.

In New York, a plan to expand a key crude-by-rail conduit to East Coast refiners has been held in limbo for over a year at the Port of Albany, owing to an environmentalist lawsuit and closer public scrutiny.

The proposal by fuel logistics firm Global Partners LP would have added a boiler room to an existing facility to process heavier crude from Canada. But advocacy groups including Riverkeeper have challenged the company's operating air permit, calling for more review by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (EnergyWire, Jan. 13, 2014).

"All of the actions we've taken with Earthjustice and others have really ground to a halt DEC's repeated approvals of these minor modifications," said Kate Hudson, watershed program director for Riverkeeper. "We have not seen tar sands. ... The river has been spared that threat for a year-plus, at this point.

"We certainly have no regrets," she said.

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Environmentalists play 'Whac-A-Mole' to stall crude-by-rail projects
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.