Along the banks of the Columbia River, in Vancouver, Washington, a partnership between Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies is proposing to build North America's largest crude-by-rail handling facility. Designed to handle up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil every day carried in four mile-long unit trains, the proposed facility would place communities and the environment at risk along thousands of miles of rail corridors while further prolonging our nation's dependence on the fossil fuels threatening the stability of our climate. More troubling still is the fact that the proposed facility is designed to handle not only the light oils coming from North Dakota, but also the extra-heavy, carbon-intensive tar sands crude coming from Northern Alberta and has been identified as a key part of the tar sand's industry's efforts to push a full scale tar sands invasion of the West Coast. And despite the thousands of miles this oil will have already traveled through communities in Alberta, British Columbia, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, its journey isn't even over when it gets to Vancouver. Instead, as many as 365 barges and tankers would be loaded for transport on the Columbia River and out to the Pacific, where it would be moved to refineries in Northern Washington or California or even to international markets. Thus, while Tesoro-Savage's facility is proposed for a benign-seeming 45 acres, it would place hundreds of communities, rivers, and sensitive ecosystems at risk from a spill, an explosion, or the toxic emissions that constantly seep from tank cars as they move oil from place to place. Further, by enabling expanded oil production in places like the tar sands and North Dakota's Bakken formation, this project would be yet another major source of climate-disrupting carbon pollution, undermining growing international efforts to keep global warming in check.
Still, there is reason to hope that the Tesoro-Savage facility will never get built. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers, along with Washington's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), closed a period for public comment on the scope of environmental review for each regulator's consideration of whether to grant the necessary Clean Water Act permits that Tesoro-Savage would need to before it builds the facility. Because the facility serves no purpose beyond propping up oil industry expansion and profits at a time when regional and national fuel consumption is on the decline, NRDC filed comments urging the Army Corps and EFSEC to either deny Tesoro-Savage's permits, or to conduct a broad and comprehensive environmental reviews due to the project's numerous and wide-ranging environmental impacts. In addition, we joined a coalition of 15 other environmental, medical, and business organizations in supporting comments filed by Earthjustice, which outline the legal basis for both permit denial and extensive environmental review. Recognizing the dramatic range of negative impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also submitted comments requesting that the Army Corps, "not issue a permit for this project until its potential direct, secondary and cumulative impacts are fully characterized."
Even taken alone, without consideration of the flurry of similar facilities proposed in Washington, Oregon, and California, the Tesoro-Savage facility is an incredibly risky proposition. In our letter to the Army Corps, NRDC identified at least five areas of risk that this single project would create if it were ever built:
- First, because the rail lines serving Vancouver travel beside hundreds of miles of the Columbia River and because crude delivered to Vancouver would be loaded onto barges navigating the Columbia, a huge portion of this critical waterbody are at risk from a spill of either conventional oil or diluted bitumen. If diluted bitumen were to spill during a derailment or during barge loading, a tragedy akin to the spill that reached the Kalamazoo River in Michigan could occur, leading to huge cleanup costs, long-term contamination, and unknown impacts to one of the region's key salmon runs.
- Second, the increased train traffic caused by this project could increase the probability of a derailment, strain aging infrastructure, keep other commodities off the rails, and disrupt emergency services and businesses in rural communities.
- Third, both the proposed facility itself and the hundreds of tank cars it would handle every day are expected to emit numerous toxic chemicals into the surrounding air, including toxins that are known human carcinogens.
- Fourth, because the project facilitates increased volumes of crude oil transport in the absence of any declining production elsewhere, it would support oil industry expansion of high-carbon fossil fuel reserves in both North Dakota and Alberta. If this happens, it will mark the building of yet another piece of infrastructure that facilitates significant increases in greenhouse gas production, with low estimates placing the annual emissions of the crude handled by this project at 75 million metric tons of CO2e.
- Finally, the proposed project brings with it serious environmental justice concerns. For First Nations in Canada and the U.S., in particular, the development and transport of the crudes handled by this project create serious air, water, landscape, and ecosystem impacts that they must bear the brunt of, while also seeing their protected treaty rights trampled and ignored.
Columbia River gorge. Photo courtesy of University of Oregon.
We are at a moment in history where serious, rapid, and significant action is necessary to stop our fossil fuel addiction. The infrastructure necessary to meet current U.S. oil demand already exists. There is no need to build anything new, to throw our support behind any project that would lead to increased production of fuels that need to stay put in the ground. Projects like Tesoro-Savage's crude-by-rail terminal should be the low-hanging fruit in this energy shift--there is no need to build it and saying no is an easy step to take.