Surging oil traffic puts region at risk

•April 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Originally published April 19, 2014 at 4:05 PM | Page modified April 19, 2014 at 9:53 PM

The amount of oil leaving Prince William Sound is a quarter of what it was when the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude in Alaska. But as the energy industry transforms the Pacific Northwest into a fossil-fuel gateway, tanker traffic could explode.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Graphic: Fossil fuels and spill risk

Click to learn more about the changing landscape of fossil-fuel distribution.

Efforts to transform the Northwest into a fossil-fuel hub for North Dakota’s crude, Alberta’s oil sands and coal from the Rocky Mountains mean the risks of major spills and explosions in and around Washington state are rising and poised to skyrocket.

Millions of gallons of oil are suddenly transiting our region by train. Barges now haul petroleum across the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River and on to Puget Sound. Oil-tanker traffic through tricky channels north of Puget Sound may well increase dramatically in coming years.

Earth Day: Greenwashing works well for oil industry

•April 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment
April 22, 2014
Guest Opinion: While the industry buffs its image, Washington’s waters are at increasing risk.
A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008).


A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008). 24hourmoon/Flickr


It’s Earth Day, but maybe it ought to be called Greenwash Day.

Just four years ago today, a massive gusher of oil began flowing from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. The oil rig in the Gulf had sunk two days earlier, leading to what was to become the largest accidental oil spill in history. The accident resulted in the death of 11 rig workers, at least 210 million gallons of crude oil spilled and what are today increasingly apparent impacts to the Gulf ecosystem.

Seven times the oil tanker traffic in the Strait? Canada weighs pipeline terminal in Vancouver, B.C., area

•March 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment
Click here to zoom...

The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker ship Densa Whale sits anchored in Port Angeles Harbor on Saturday after visiting BP’s Cherry Point refinery earlier in the week. Tankers servicing Canadian oil could add to traffic on the Strait of Juan de Fuca north of the border. —Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News


The Associated Press


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U.S. risk study underway

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

A study, funded in part by the Makah tribe, detailing potential risks associated with a rise in tanker vessel traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is expected to be presented to a nonprofit panel on Puget Sound marine safety early next year.

Fred Felleman, a member of the nonprofit Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee, said a final draft of a vessel traffic risk assessment currently in development is expected to be discussed at the committee’s February meeting.

The committee is a collection of marine industry, governmental and environmental stakeholders who meet every other month to discuss maritime safety issues in the Puget Sound region, according to the group’s website,

The study used U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic data to extrapolate the risk of tanker and bulk carrier ship collisions and spills based on three private company proposals that would increase such traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the larger Puget Sound region, Felleman explained.

The study is being prepared by Johan Rene Van Dorp, a professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Jason Merrick, a professor of statistical sciences and operations research at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Funding for the report came both from the Makah tribe and the Puget Sound Partnership.


Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at

SEATTLE — The number of oil tankers in Washington state waters could increase almost sevenfold under a proposal by a Canadian pipeline company to expand the amount of crude oil it sends to the Pacific Coast.

The Makah Nation is among the entities studying the risk to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kinder Morgan Canada filed a formal application with Canadian regulators earlier this month to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline that carries crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to the Vancouver, B.C., area.

Under the proposal, up to 34 tankers a month would be loaded with oil at a terminal outside Vancouver, then generally travel through Haro Strait west of San Juan Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for export to markets in Asia and the U.S.

That’s up from about five tankers a month now.

The $5.4 billion expansion project would nearly triple pipeline capacity from about 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of crude oil a day to meet customer demand.

Much of that future cargo will likely be diluted bitumen from Canada’s oil sands.

Environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada oppose the project, saying it would put communities and natural resources at risk.

They say more tanker traffic raises the potential for a major oil spill or leaks.

“Putting more vessels on the water creates tremendous new risks, and risks we’re not really prepared to deal with adequately,” said Bruce Wishart, a policy adviser with the Washington Environmental Council.

“We don’t want to see more of this product moving across our waters.”

The company says it has been responsibly loading tankers and barges from the Westridge terminal for decades without incident.

Michael Davies, senior director of marine development for Kinder Morgan Canada, said in a statement the company has “clearly heard and understood the concerns raised about tanker traffic.”

He added: “We have been safely loading vessels for more than 50 years and have recommended further enhancements to marine safety and spill response in our application to ensure the local level of care and safety is well above global shipping standards.”

If approved, the expansion is expected to be operational in late 2017. The pipeline is operated by Kinder Morgan Canada and owned by Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP.

About 6,000 large commercial vessels transit Canadian and U.S. waters toward Vancouver or Washington ports each year.

Two other proposed projects also are expected to increase cargo vessel traffic in the Salish Sea region.

They include the Gateway Pacific coal-export terminal proposed at Cherry Point, which could add up to 487 cargo ships a year, and the proposed expansion at Deltaport at Roberts Bank in Delta, B.C.

Meanwhile, officials in Washington state are trying to anticipate how those proposals could change vessel traffic in north Puget Sound and what that means for spill risks.

The Puget Sound Partnership, the Makah Nation and others are working with researchers at George Washington University to study different risk scenarios.

“For more than two decades we’ve had a great track record of maritime safety and we want to continue that success,” said Todd Hass with the Puget Sound Partnership.

“In the face of a number projects that could add hundreds of vessels arriving in the system, we want to make sure we anticipate the changes that might occur and plan.”

Some marine officials say increased vessels can be managed.

“Safeguards are in place. They may have to be tweaked. Some folks think it’s a heavily congested waterway. There aren’t many vessels out there,” said John Veentjer, a former Coast Guard officer who heads the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee.

“If those projects were to be built, there would be more vessels. Can we manage those numbers? Sure,” he said. “I think it’s going to take some additional vessel traffic management effort, but it’s not something out of our reach.”

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said Canadian officials haven’t done enough to ensure they can adequately respond to spills in waters it shares with the U.S.

“They haven’t taken enough steps to prevent and respond to the size of a spill such traffic would generate,” he said.

Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, manager of the Department of Ecology’s spills preparedness section, said various efforts are underway to identify and align spill preparedness standards between the U.S. and Canada.

When the state updated its contingency plan last year, it required the industry to include response equipment to locate oil in the water column.

That was in response to some emerging proposals, such as the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, she said.

“There’s work to be done, but we’re not completely unprepared,” she said.

Last modified: December 28. 2013 5:26PM

Oil spill risks would rise from three major projects: U.S. study

•February 3, 2014 • 1 Comment

The Vancouver Sun
VANCOUVER — A U.S. study that takes a wider examination than Canadian research into oil spill risks in the Salish Sea shows the greatest potential increase in spills is off the San Juan and Gulf Islands. The potential for oil spills in the Haro Strait-Boundary Pass passage increases by 4.75 times as a result of the anticipated increase of 1,250 large ships annually from three planned projects in the waters shared by British Columbia and Washington state, according to the draft findings of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded study.
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Where have all the activist singers gone?

•January 28, 2014 • 1 Comment

Where have all the activist singers gone?

Pete opens Bumbershoot in Seattle with Norm Rice 17 years ago or so.

Crosscut Tankers, barges and trains, Oh my!

•November 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment




Guest Opinion: The public and regulators need to take a closer look at Washington’s growing fossil-fuel threats.


Vast amounts of crude oil, primarily from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, is being transported by rail throughout the United State and Canada. Eleven rail terminals are in various stages of completion in Washington state in anticipation of receiving this “shale on rail.”

The Vancouver Sun recently reported on 10 oil train accidents in Canada since May, including the tragic explosion resulting in 47 deaths outside Quebec in July. Despite this troubling record, the New York Times reported that Canada is poised to quadruple its rail terminal capacity over the next few years.

In the United States, the movement of crude oil by railroad has gone from 9,500 carloads five years ago to 234,000 carloads and is still increasing. Between 2005 and 2012 it has increased 443 percent.

Fortunately for the communities around Grays Harbor, the Shorelines Hearings Board has indicated it will deny the premature granting of a shoreline permit to Imperium and Westway Marine Terminals to build crude oil storage tanks for export. The Department of Ecology must first, among other things, analyze their ability to prevent and respond to an oil spill in the ecologically rich estuarine waters adjacent to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.

While Ecology deserves praise for conducting broad environmental reviews of the three coal terminals proposed for Cherry Point and the Columbia River, it has fallen far short in its review of the rail terminals proposed to handle the abundance of oil from North Dakota.

None of these proposals, including ones that are already in operation at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes and in Port Westward near Clatskanie, Ore., have been subject to an environmental impact statement (EIS), nor have they looked at the cumulative impacts on train and ship traffic if all the projects were to move forward. These projects would result in vessel traffic increases of at least 21 percent for Puget Sound, 153 percent for the Columbia River and 383 percent for Grays Harbor.

The refineries are receiving permits for their rail expansions without the benefit of EIS’s because Whatcom, Skagit and Pierce counties are issuing mitigated determinations of non-significance. Tyler Schroder of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said of BP’s rail terminal proposal, “It’s only one train a day.” The point of an EIS is to conduct a cumulative analysis of impacts, including reasonably foreseeable future activities. Such a study for any of the five refineries would need to acknowledge that if all the crude and coal proposals were to be approved, it would result in 35 additional loaded trains in Spokane alone.  Furthermore, BP’s refinery is located within a mile of the proposed Gateway Coal Terminal and adjacent to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, created to recover the genetically unique and dwindling herring stock found only there.

Some may wonder why we should be concerned about our refineries receiving crude by rail, thinking that supplying the refineries by rail is better than tankers when it comes to oil spills. While the accidents in Canada render that question less salient of late, it is important to recognize that there is nothing stopping refineries from also using their marine terminals to export crude without refining it. Loaded crude tankers are already departing from the Sound. 

There is also the massive expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain Pipeline that currently brings 300,000 barrels per day,  mostly of tar sand-derived crude oil, from Alberta to Vancouver British Columbia, with some processed at Washington refineries. Kinder Morgan intends to triple that capacity, resulting in an additional 348 tankers plying the core area of the critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whale community annually.

Tar sands are a particularly nasty crude source, requiring diluents to flow through pipelines. These components separate when exposed to air, causing a highly toxic vapor and the heavy oil tends to sink once the lighter elements evaporate. That is not to say Bakken Shale is “good oil”; though it is often referred to as “light-sweet” crude, that is a misnomer if ever there was one. This is only available for market due to fracking that releases all sorts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as well as introducing impurities to the oil that causes corrosion to pipelines, rail cars and tankers. The fact that it has relatively low sulfur is no reason for it to be touted as a “clean fuel” as the developers of the Imperium Terminal in Grays Harbor did at the Governor’s Climate Change forum recently.

A recently completed infographic is designed to help the public and regulators envision what this state would look like if we were to allow ourselves to be the fossil fuel funnel for the Far East (below; it’s from the environmental group Protect Whatcom). The proposals affect every part of the state, and require close attention if the public’s voice is to be heard. The comment period for the Millennium Bulk Logistics coal terminal in Longview is coming to an end on Nov. 18. And next week, the Washington Environmental Council and a host of other environmental groups are offering a workshop for those interested in learning about the proposals. 

Washington State prides itself on its green patina, now is the time for the public to learn and speak up about these export proposals before that reputation begins to rust.

Source: Whatcom Protects/  

Fred Felleman, who has a masters of science from the University of Washington, has spent the past 30 years working to advance the understanding and protection of Northwest waters through research, advocacy, and photography. He is the Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth and a leading regional voice for marine mammal conservation and maritime safety. He blogs at

View this story online at:

© 2013 Crosscut Public Media. All rights reserved.

Printed on November 17, 2013

Exporting Pollutants: No way to reduce a carbon footprint

•July 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Guest Opinion: Puget Sound’s health is at risk if Washington becomes the fossil fuel gateway to Asia. President Obama says he’s open to “better ideas.” Time for state leaders to give him some.

By Stephan Michaels and Fred Felleman              July 30, 2013

There was much ado over President Barack Obama’s long awaited climate speech this past month, which garnered praise for its laudable ambitions to reduce carbon pollution, and legitimate criticisms for its striking ironies. The most glaring omission was the president’s failure to mention the climatic effects of exporting U.S. coal to Asia.

That oversight came just one week after the Acting Chief of Regulatory Programs for The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified before the U.S. Congress that the Corps would neither study the effects of burning American coal in Asia nor the cumulative impacts from three coal ports being proposed for the Pacific Northwest. The acting chief maintained that those significant impacts “are outside the Corps’ control and responsibility.”

The president’s speech and the testimony of a high ranking Army Corps official beg the question: Does the Obama Administration actually think the United States can reduce its carbon footprint by exporting its pollutants?

First, the Corps’ interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is disputable, especially considering that two of the coal terminals proposed for Washington State are on the Columbia River and would result in increased shipping traffic.

NEPA actually authorizes the broadest review of impacts from such massive projects, including cumulative effects from associated endeavors such as transporting explosive crude from Canada and North Dakota through Northwest communities by rail and waterway.

No surprise. Taking the narrow view has long been a hallmark of the Corps, as documented in the five-part series by Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald, including “For Oil Projects, Corps’ Answer is Almost Always ‘Yes’” (9/13/2000).

While the Corps claims that international shipping is also outside its purview, it must review the impacts of the enormous bulk carriers — twice the size of oil tankers allowed to call on Puget Sound and lacking their tug escorts or double hull requirements — as they diesel through Washington and U.S. waters. These bulk carriers have the worst accident record of all cargo vessels.

Given the Corps’ dismal track record when it comes to conducting environmental analysis — it has yet to produce the Environmental Impact Statement for BP’s refinery dock expansion that was required by the Ninth Circuit Court eight years ago — all eyes now turn to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Peter Goldmark, the state’s commissioner of public lands and head of its Department of Natural Resources, and Washington’s Department of Ecology to fill this void.

The governor and the ecology department have clear authority over impacts to the marine environment associated with the unprecedented onslaught of fossil fuel infrastructures being proposed for Washington state. And any enterprise seeking to build a dock will also need a permit from Goldmark’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Indeed, DNR has an important card to play in the coal export debate. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point is surrounded by DNR’s Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, whose management plan calls for the restoration of the genetically unique herring stock found there.

At full buildout, GPT estimates it will require approximately 487 bulk carriers to ship 48-million tons of coal across the Pacific each year. These high-risk vessels would be competing for passage with oil tankers and other vessel traffic through the already congested shipping lanes around the San Juan Islands. How this impacts the risk of an oil spill is the subject of a current EPA-funded collaborative study hosted by the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee.

But as early as 1999, a DNR-commissioned study recognized that increased vessel traffic from the BP Refinery, less than a mile from GPT, “will inevitably increase the risk of an oil spill,” and “if such a spill were to occur … the impact to Cherry Point herring could be catastrophic.” That was the conclusion before anyone understood the full scale of GPT and that the commodity in question would be coal.

Endangered southern resident killer whales subsist on endangered Chinook salmon that, in turn, depend on forage fish like the already decimated herring population at Cherry Point.

While the Seattle media recently afforded extensive coverage to transient orcas arriving in Puget Sound, and also to the great success of the once-orphaned “Springer,” the orca who just gave birth to her first calf, those stories should be overshadowed by the dire status of our resident killer whales. The Center for Whale Research, recently reported that only 82 southern, resident orcas remain in J, K and L pod populations, their lowest number since 2001. Significantly expanding commercial traffic to export fossil fuel would be an irresponsible contribution to our resident orcas’ demise and, ultimately, to global pollution.

In concluding his climate speech, Obama said he was “open to all sorts of new ideas, maybe better ideas” to combat threats from climate changing pollutants. Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Goldmark, that’s your invitation to help the Obama administration evaluate the combined impacts and prevent the potential disaster of allowing Washington’s waterways to become the fossil fuel gateway to Asia.

Stephan Michaels is a Northwest Washington freelance journalist who writes about ecology and coal exports. Stephan can be contacted through

Fred Felleman came to the Northwest in 1980 to study killer whales for his graduate research at the University of Washington. He championed creation of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Neah Bay rescue tug and successfully challenged BP’s expansion of a refinery dock. He is currently a consultant for Friends of the Earth.


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