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Coal & oil export projects update: Importance of civic engagement

September 12, 2015

oil train

We live in a time of radically changing economic systems in our country.  The expansion and commercialization of fracking technology has fundamentally altered the supply and thus the price of global oil, coal, natural gas and other traditional fuel sources.

Today, Washington is at the forefront of this broader systems change because we are located at the export gateway to the Pacific and Asia.  States where fracking is now commonplace are dependent upon Washington to export their low-priced commodities, even though Washington has traditionally been more of a refinery state (with five major facilities operational).  Other states know that the commodities of coal, oil, lumber and other natural resources have long been central to our state’s success, and they will continue to be for years to come.  At a broad level exporting commodities has a role in our economy so long as it done with care, objective analysis about the true costs and externalities and intentional environmental consideration.

The vital step ahead is to be intentional and educated about the proposals on the table to export coal and oil from our state.  One of my goals is to ensure that we are quantifying the externalities of costs associated with these policies, and not subsidizing environmental and economic harm.

My broader goal is to raise the level of rigor in analyzing these proposals through the lens of a modern, 21st Century community.  What type of state do we want for our children?  Is an economy of heavy commodity exports such as coal and oil the highest and best use of our infrastructure resources?

The distressing inability of the media, public, activists and even proponents to easily track the process of permitting and consideration of these proposals suggests we need a much more user-friendly approach to educating the public.  The state has categorically failed, in my view, to make the broader process understandable for most people.

Given the complexity, I thought it might be useful to provide a base-line update on the proposals under consideration in Washington.

Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point

The first and most expansive coal export proposal in the Northwest, SSA Marine–a respected Seattle company–first applied for permits in 2011. After a lengthy scoping phase, the lead agencies made the unusual decision to split the environmental review process – Whatcom County and Ecology would prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) together, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering would prepare its own EIS. The scope of the state and local EIS, expected to reach completion in 2016, was quite broad, considering impacts from increased rail traffic through the entire state as well as GHG emissions from downstream use of coal. This came about after more than 100,000 citizens commented in public hearings about the importance of a comprehensive review.  The Army Corps review, conversely, was to be quite narrow, looking only at impacts within Whatcom County resulting from construction and day-to-day operations of the facility. It’s easy to see why this division has occurred.

While the agencies were developing EIS documents, the Lummi Nation sent a letter to the Army Corps asserting that their treaty fishing rights would be structurally compromised by the proposed project and requesting that the environmental review be terminated. Though the federal agency has yet to respond, litigation seems imminent if the Army Corps issues a permit in spite of the Lummi’s concerns. The Lummi recently bolstered their legal team in preparation for a fight, if necessary.  They are not alone in believing that their case seems strong.

In addition, the Army Corps review is also delayed by the updated plan submitted by SSA Marine in March 2015 – involving less use of wetland area – from 2016 to 2017.

Once both draft EISs are published, there will be a public comment period prior to the issuance of final EISs. In the event that the agencies issue the necessary permits (complicated by a sentiment that a majority of Whatcom County Council appears to be uncomfortable with the plans), a lease for the aquatic land would have to be granted by the state Department of Natural Resources. If this occurs and litigation is avoided, construction could begin as early as late 2017.

Longview Millennium Bulk Terminal

This project was also proposed in 2011, when the principal proponent was Ambre Energy. Since then, Ambre has sold its interest in North American coal ventures to a venture capital firm. The project went through an extensive scoping process in 2013 in which 215,000 comments were received, and like the Gateway project, state and local agencies will conduct a broad review while the federal Army Corps will focus its review on the project area and the immediate vicinity. Draft EISs were expected to be complete by September 2015, but are now delayed until November and will likely be pushed back into early 2016. When draft environmental review documents are released, there will be a public comment period, follow by the issuance of a final EIS.

If permits are issued by the lead agencies, project proponents will still need to secure aquatic leases from DNR. Local environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, are poised to challenge the project on legal groups in the event that it is allowed to move forward after the EIS process.

Tesoro-Savage Terminal in Vancouver

This proposal would be the largest crude-by-rail facility in the country, receiving 360,000 barrels (4 complete unit trains) per day. Unlike the coal export projects, oil export facility permits are largely reviewed by Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), which makes recommendations to the Governor who can then greenlight or nix the project. Prior to EFSEC review, however, project proponents secured a lease for the facility site from the Port of Vancouver, under controversial circumstances that angered opponents.

EFSEC review is required to be completed within 12 months, though in practice that has never happened. Still, now that 2 years have elapsed since the project was originally proposed, proponents are getting frustrated with the delays and the lack of any definite timeline. EFSEC has stated that draft review documents could be released for public comment as early as November 2015.

Westway/Imperium Terminal Expansion

This project involves the conversion and expansion of existing facilities to handle crude oil delivered by rail. Grays Harbor County and Ecology are the SEPA lead agencies, and they issued draft EISs for the project on August 31, 2015. The public comment period for these documents will run through October 29th, 2015. A final EIS could be issued as early as spring 2016, and the first phase of the project could be completed by early 2017.

NuStar Vancouver

This existing facility proposes to convert and expand to handle 22,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The project was proposed one day before Vancouver issued a moratorium on crude oil facilities. The city announced that it would require a full EIS process in April 2015. The scoping period ended in May, and agencies are working on a draft EIS with no timeline announced.

Public officials statewide have a responsibility to be better informed about these projects and to help educate our community about the economic, social, environmental and political implications on all sides.

I’m trying to do my small part.

Your partner in service,


One Comment leave one →
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