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Q&A: Shipping Oil Through The Port Of Vancouver

The Port of Vancouver Commission approved a lease for a controversial oil terminal Tuesday. Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies plan to move up to 380,000 barrels of crude oil a day from trains to ships at the port. The oil would come from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. It would be shipped to refineries in Washington, California and Alaska.

This bird's eye view of the Port of Vancouver clearly shows the port's new Terminal 5 and the rail loop that surrounds it.

This bird’s eye view of the Port of Vancouver clearly shows the port’s new Terminal 5 and the rail loop that surrounds it.

Port of Vancouver

Cassandra Profita has been reporting on the port’s decision to approve the lease, and she joined Gretchen Kilby in the studio to discuss the issue.

Kilby: There has been quite a bit of opposition to this project – particularly after the oil train explosion in rural Quebec earlier this month. Does it seems like approving the lease was a tough decision for the Port of Vancouver commissioners?

Profita: Well, it was a unanimous decision. Most people thought the commission was going to delay its vote on the lease because of the tremendous amount of attention it was suddenly getting. 

Commissioner Brian Wolfe said he had been told oil in the trains coming to the Port of Vancouver for this project couldn’t explode.  And yet there was this explosion earlier this month that wound up killing 47 people. So he was asking a lot of questions. Today he talked at length about his decision making process. But in the end, he voted yes, joining the two other commissioners. 

Commissioner Nancy Baker said she was going to lose a number of friends over her decision to vote for the lease, and that it wasn’t an easy call.

Commission President Jerry Oliver made a point of inviting people to speak at the meetings on this lease yesterday and today. 

The commissioners all  concluded  there would were a lot of benefits to approving this project. Commissioner Wolfe pointed out that Americans will continue to use oil in their cars and trucks regardless of whether this terminal is built.

Wolfe: You almost have to use it to get off it. I asked if there was anybody who rode their bicycle this morning, and nobody raised their hand.

Profita: And if Vancouver doesn’t take the oil, the company says some other port probably will.  Matt Gill, of Tesoro, says that’s true, and he says this allows the company to connect domestic oil with U.S. refineries: 

Gill: This allows us to back out foreign crudes and replace them with domestically produced American crudes.

Kilby: What does the port’s lease approval allow these companies to do?

Profita: The lease allows these companies to begin a state approval process through a board called the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. They will need additional approvals before they can operate. 

One of the big hurdles they will have to get over is developing a safety plan that will satisfy public agencies including the Vancouver port commission. The commissioners made it clear today the companies won’t be able to move oil on the property until that safety plan has been approved.

Eventually, if the project is approved,  these companies will be able to move oil around without a pipeline.  That’s a big deal because oil pipelines across the country are filling up as more oil is produced in the U.S..

Kilby: What did you hear from supporters and opponents of this project?

Profita: Supporters were out in force at the meeting this morning. They came from the Columbia Building Trades, the Columbia River Economic Development Council and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. And they’re all focused on the jobs this project would create – both direct and indirect. 

The developers say the project would create 250 construction jobs followed by 80 direct jobs at initial build-out – moving 60,000 barrels of crude oil a day. That number would go up to at least 120 jobs as the terminal moves more oil.

Now, last night the commission held a workshop, and that meeting was dominated by opponents. They’re concerned about oil spills, both from trains coming through the Columbia River Gorge and on ships traveling down the Columbia River. They also don’t want to see the port supporting industries that promote more fossil fuels because they contribute to climate change.

And they have the ear of a pretty prominent climate activist named Bill McKibben, who founded the group He took a boat ride to the proposed oil terminal site last week, and here’s what he said about why he’s opposed to the project: 

McKibben: What happens here in the Pacific Northwest will play a big role in how bad global warming gets. If we build all these coal and LNG and oil ports down the Oregon and Washington coasts then it makes it much harder to do anything about climate change.

Kilby: So, what comes next?

Profita: Well, opponents are planning a big protest Saturday on the Columbia River, and they’re already looking to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to spike the project.

Meanwhile, Tesoro and Savage companies will be going through a pretty rigorous state approval process for at least a year before the governor weighs in. So we still have a ways to go before the terminal could start receiving oil.

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