Since 2009, elections for a seat on the Port of Vancouver commission have been relatively low-key affairs. Candidates who ran for a six-year term on the three-member board that oversees the port have won their elections unopposed in the last three races.

That was then.

Now, a proposed energy project at the port has sparked interest in a race for an open seat on the commission, turning the primary election into a hotly-contested race.

Officials with the Port of Vancouver, along with energy companies Tesoro-Savage, want to build the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country. The proposal has deeply divided the region.

Seven candidates are vying for the port’s governance body in Washington’s Aug. 4 primary election.

The Tesoro-Savage joint venture — called the Vancouver Energy Project — could ship 360,000 barrels of oil daily from the port to refineries along the West Coast. But critics of the plan say it’s not safe and take issue with the way the port agreed to the proposed deal.

This fall, voters in Vancouver will elect a new port commissioner. The results could affect the oil terminal’s future.

“Probably the biggest issue in this race is the proposed oil terminals,” said Eric LaBrant, one of the candidates for port commissioner, who works in the shipping industry. He and the other candidates appeared at a League of Women Voters forum in downtown Vancouver earlier this month.

“I don’t think (the oil terminal is) a good fit for this community,” LaBrant told the audience. “I don’t think we want to brand our city as an oil town. I think that’s a great way to drive out a lot of the other businesses that we hope to attract for the future.”

Like LaBrant, most of the candidates said they oppose the oil terminal, though a couple of candidates support it.

“People have lost 100 percent, I believe, of any trust with the port commission right now,” said Scott Dalesandro, who runs a logistics company that works with the paper industry. He’s another candidate for the port seat who opposes the oil terminal proposal.

Dalesandro said the way the port went about signing a lease with Tesoro-Savage was “rushed,” and that the process was not transparent.

Candidate Bob Durgan, who describes himself as a lifelong Clark County resident with a background in commercial property development, said the oil project represents a poor return on investment.

“It wouldn’t have happened under my watch,” he said during the forum. “You wouldn’t have had a Tesoro.”

But others who want to be Vancouver’s next port commissioner said when it comes to the oil terminal, the Port of Vancouver is taking the right steps to secure its financial future.

“I don’t think they deserve the loss of trust that they got,” said Lisa Ross, another port commission candidate.

Last November, Ross ran as a Republican candidate for the Washington Legislature, but lost. So far, she has raised the most money in the port commission race: more than $20,000. Campaign records filed with the state show $16,000 has come from Clark County Councilor David Madore and Vancouver real estate developer Clyde Holland.

Ross supports the Tesoro-Savage project and said it can be done safely.

“The United States needs to get this Bakken oil to the ocean,” Ross said. “They need to get it to American refineries, on American ships that are American owned, with American crews. And the closest way to do that is to go to the Port of Vancouver.”

Bakken shale oil is domestically produced in North Dakota. The oil terminal would be one part of a system to move the crude from there to shipping terminals and refineries on the West Coast.

Port candidate Bill Hughes, who says he was once in the Merchant Marine, also agrees that the port’s decision to sign a lease with Tesoro-Savage was a good one.

“I happen to be in favor of it because I know it’s going to provide a lot of jobs,” Hughes said.

But other candidates said bringing the oil terminal into the Port of Vancouver would do more harm than good for the community.

Nick Ande is a former campaign manager for Democratic candidates in southwest Washington, and is the youngest candidate in the race. Ande opposes the oil terminal and wants to see the port move in a different direction.

“The first thing we should do is not make Vancouver the industrial armpit of the Pacific Northwest by bringing in massive oil terminals and trains every single day,” he said.

Still, some candidates in the race said the intense focus on the oil terminal is “misguided.”

Port commission candidate Peter Harrison volunteers at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland as a chemistry educator.

He doesn’t think the proposed oil terminal is a good idea, but said he’d rather focus on rail safety and ensuring that the port is improving the local economy.

“The mission of the port is to provide economic development and jobs for the economic benefit of the people of Washington state, not the people of North Dakota,” he said.

The two candidates with the most votes will move on to the general election in November.