SEATTLE — As regulators in the region weigh the potential impacts of trains full of coal moving along the Columbia River and the shores of Puget Sound, trainloads of oil are quietly on the move.
There are billions of barrels of oil in the Bakken shale formation – located in North Dakota and Montana mainly.
And some of that oil is now making its way to refineries in Puget Sound.
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Dale Jensen, the spill program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, says oil trains are a new concern for him.
“This is kinda the sleeper that has come on very strongly in such a very short period of time,” he says.
Each one of these trains can carry 50,000 barrels of oil. Right now the oil trains are bound for two refineries in Puget Sound – U.S. Oil in Tacoma and the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes – but there could be more on the way.
BP has applied for a permit to expand the access rail capacity for their Cherry Point refinery near Bellingham. The port of Grays Harbor is considering exporting Bakken crude oil as well.
Jensen says oil train accident could cause major environmental damage.
“You’re dealing with a liquid that can move very quickly,” Jensen says. “It can get into the groundwater. It can get into the streams. It can get into the rivers…I’m really concerned about this.”
Frank Holmes, with the Western States Petroleum Association, says oil companies are prepared to respond to an oil train accident.
“The major companies that are our members have nation wide, world wide oil spill response teams that can respond.”
Right now Washington is still refining more oil from Alaska than from the Great Plains, though that’s starting to change as the amount of oil coming out of Alaska has dropped from a high of 2 million barrels a day to under 600,000 barrels a day.
Much of the Alaskan oil arrives by ship. The state collects a 5-cent tax on each barrel of that oil and uses the money to support the program that will deal with the environmental clean up if an accident occurs.
The thousands of barrels of oil that are transported by train don’t pay that tax. That means they’re not paying into the state clean up fund. Frank Holmes says that shouldn’t change. “Before looking at expanding the oil tax we probably should look at finding ways to have those other sectors that Ecology is looking after contribute to the program.”
Holmes says cargo ships and recreational boaters should pay into the fund as well.
Oil that arrives at Washington refineries by pipeline is also not taxed the 5-cents-per-barrel for clean up.