A majority of the Vancouver City Council now publicly opposes plans to build the Northwest’s largest oil-handling facility at the Port of Vancouver.
Councilor Jack Burkman made his opposition known at the end of Monday’s council meeting. Councilors Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Bart Hansen and Larry Smith all confirmed to The Columbian on Wednesday that they, too, oppose the $110 million project proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies.
While the city council doesn’t have direct control over the project — Tesoro-Savage signed the lease with the Port of Vancouver’s Board of Commissioners, and the facility will have to be approved by Gov. Jay Inslee — having a majority of the seven-member council in opposition means the city can actively fight it.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilors Alishia Topper and Bill Turlay have said it’s premature to take a position.
Todd Coleman, the Port of Vancouver’s executive director, said Wednesday the council’s majority opposition to the proposed oil-by-rail transfer terminal “surprises me a little bit,” because he thought the city was prepared to learn all of the facts that will come out during the review process overseen by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC. “I think it’s premature,” he said of the council’s stance.
The lease the port commission unanimously approved with Tesoro-Savage involves 42 acres and is worth at least $45 million to the port over an initial 10 years. The port and the companies say the oil-handling project would bring several economic development benefits, including creating 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 full-time jobs, boosting local and state tax revenues, and helping support U.S. energy independence. As to whether Coleman thinks the council’s majority position imperils the proposed oil-handling project, he said: “It doesn’t help.”
On April 21, the city council will raise its profile in the controversial project by voting on whether to be an intervenor in the EFSEC process, which ends with a recommendation to Inslee.
From neutral to “no”
In December, the city sent a letter to the EFSEC outlining more than 100 areas of concern it wants the agency to include in its environmental impact review.
The city’s concerns reflect many of those raised by opponents, including potential oil spills, fiery train derailments, train-traffic impacts on neighborhoods, detrimental impacts to the waterfront redevelopment plan and greenhouse gas emissions. But the city struck a neutral stance in its December letter, saying it encourages the agency to “require a full and comprehensive analysis” of the project’s impacts.
The city’s comments were among thousands submitted to EFSEC.
By becoming an intervenor, the city would become a party of record, Vancouver Attorney Ted Gathe said Wednesday. That allows the city to present witnesses and evidence to EFSEC in support of its opposition to the project.
The council could also join Seattle, Bellingham and other cities in calling for tougher safety regulations and putting a statewide moratorium on expanding oil-handling facilities or building new ones. Hansen said the city could also consider imposing additional restrictions on oil-handling facilities in the city and trains that pass through the city.
Brian Wolfe, chairman of the port commission, said Wednesday that he was “terribly disappointed” by the news a majority of the council opposes the project.
“I think they’re making a decision without knowing all the facts,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said EFSEC approaches proposed energy projects from a “scientific perspective, not an emotional perspective.” In light of that approach, Wolfe said, he wouldn’t think the council’s majority position against the proposed oil terminal “would have a lot of impact.” However, he added, “in the political arena, one never knows.”
Wolfe said he struggled with whether to approve the lease for the oil-terminal project before he cast his “yes” vote. “I still have those same feelings.” But he said he believes in the EFSEC process. “If at the end of the day we get an oil terminal, wonderful, we make some money,” he said. “If the governor or EFSEC says it’s not a good idea, we can live with that.”
Jared Larrabee, general manager for the proposed oil terminal for Savage Companies, said Wednesday it’s important for the city to be involved in the EFSEC process, “regardless of how they choose to be involved.”
Larrabee said that the city “seeing that process through is an important part” of its involvement in the EFSEC process.
After Burkman stated his opposition during council communications on Monday — a time where councilors typically stick to small talk such as what fundraising events they attended over the weekend and steer clear of discussing major policy decisions — Leavitt said Burkman, Hansen and Smith could form a subcommittee and discuss a potential council resolution.
Burkman said the project didn’t align with his values and vision for Vancouver.
“I’ve decided this is the wrong project, the wrong place, the wrong time,” Burkman said.
Turlay said he thought it would be premature to even form a subcommittee to consider a resolution. He, Topper and Leavitt all said they needed more time to make an informed decision.
Leavitt said he wants answers to the concerns the council has already raised with EFSEC. City Manager Eric Holmes told the council it has an April 14 workshop with BNSF Railway officials to hear about rail investments and improvements.
The oil terminal proposal put the city council in an awkward spot, as Barry Cain, the developer of a $1.3 billion downtown waterfront revitalization project, has insisted he won’t go forward with that project if the oil-by-rail facility wins approval.
Jim Luce, a former chairman of EFSEC who opposes the oil terminal and who is a consultant to Columbia Waterfront LLC, said Wednesday that the council’s majority opposition to the oil-handling facility “has affirmed the vision and values of our community, and the long-standing and strong partnership between (Waterfront LLC) and the city.”
Luce, chairman of EFSEC from 2001 until 2013, added that he’s pleased the city is “acting affirmatively” to protect its “more than $50 million investment in the waterfront project.”
Tesoro-Savage, which wants to build a facility capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of oil per day for eventual conversion into transportation fuels, has said Vancouver can have both the terminal and a new commercial/residential waterfront. Port officials agree.