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Proposed Rail-To-Ship Oil Terminal Draws Crowd And Critics

Port of Vancouver USA

Many of the same groups that oppose coal exports from the Northwest are lining up against a new foe: crude oil trains and the associated marine terminals.

That was evident Thursday when two corporations outlined their plans for a big new crude oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, Washington. One critic likened it to the Keystone pipeline controversy. Here as there, jobs and energy independence are in play.

The drilling technology called hydraulic fracturing - better known as fracking - is creating a gusher of oil in North Dakota. Tesoro Corporation wants to get some of that oil, which sells at a discount, for its West Coast refineries.

So the refiner has entered a joint venture with an oil handling company called Savage. Executives from both companies told Port of Vancouver commissioners that building a pipeline over the mountains is impractical.

Savage Vice President Kent Avery described southwest Washington as an ideal location to receive oil instead by train and send it out by ship down the Columbia River. "We believe we'll start with one train a day and quickly get to two," he said. "Beyond that, it'll be completely market driven."

The Tesoro-Savage crude-by-rail project is not the first in the Northwest, but it's shaping up as the biggest. At full build-out, it will dwarf all others on the drawing boards in the region, including the next biggest proposed at the Port of Grays Harbor.

The scale worries Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director Dan Serres. He said, "It is a really truly massive project that will impact the entire Columbia River system. To put it on a scale, it's almost half the size of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is in the news every other day as far as I can tell."

Serres was the first in a string of critics to take the podium at a port commission workshop. The Sierra Club followed, then later Marla Nelson of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

"The risk of an oil spill -- even if minute -- would be catastrophic to this region and the struggling populations of endangered salmon in the area," said Nelson.

Tesoro executives acknowledge their company has been fined for safety violations at its refineries. Savage's Avery places his confidence in improved technology and a corporate culture that he says prioritizes environmental protection. "Our motto is 'Not one drop,'" he says. "We're not going to spill one drop. We take that very seriously."

The developers' next step is to secure a lease from the port. Then a Washington state energy facilities board would begin a year-long review. The panel's recommendation lands in the lap of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee for a final verdict.

On the Web:

Workshop: Proposed crude oil facility - Port of Vancouver USA 
Northwest on verge of becoming Pacific crude oil gateway (Jan. 31, 2013) - Northwest News Network 

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.