Big oil shows need for added scrutiny


Last updated November 22, 2007 6:23 p.m. PT


As if in celebration of the Thanksgiving season, the chum salmon return and endangered orca follow them into Puget Sound with a new calf to remind us they are trying to recover if we give them the chance.

In sharp contrast, recent oil spills in San Francisco Bay and the Black Sea highlight risks they face. Locally, the parent companies of our state’s largest oil refineries, in Whatcom County, are trying to put news of their mistakes behind them while making new ones.

ConocoPhillips officials just cut a $3 million criminal plea agreement for the January 2004 midocean spill it tried to cover up. That agreement failed to include the 2004 Dalco Pass spill in the Sound for which it denies responsibility despite paying civil penalties.

A couple of weeks earlier, BP paid $373 million in settlements to sweep away federal charges linked to propane price fixing, the deadly Texas refinery explosion and the largest oil spill on Alaska’s north slope. In addition, four former BP employees were indicted on 20 counts of mail and wire fraud associated with manipulating energy markets.

Both those oil companies have three-year probation periods. The following demonstrates their need for the additional scrutiny:

The state Department of Ecology has just instituted rules requiring facilities that transfer high volumes of oil over water to place containment boom around the tanker before transfer. BP and ConocoPhillips both wrote to Ecology claiming that when current speed exceeds half a knot they may choose not to boom. During a 24-hour oil transfer the current inevitably exceeds that speed, giving those facilities daily excuses not to boom. Fortunately, Ecology has told the refineries they should use the boom regardless of the current speed as long as it is safe. We’ll soon see if they appeal.

When BP officials applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to double their refinery dock adjacent to a declining major herring stock, they claimed they did not have to complete an environmental impact statement because they would pre-boom all oil transfers, thereby making the situation safer. I filed a successful appellate court challenge after BP already had built the dock. Subsequently, BP removed the mooring system necessary to pre-boom its tankers. As a result of the suit, BP was required to reinstall the mooring system at a cost of $4 million but proposed to rarely put it to use until Ecology intervened. Much oversight is still needed as the case requires the Corps to complete the dock EIS with a major oil spill risk assessment and to determine if BP is in violation of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson’s restrictions on refinery dock expansions.

The refineries have threatened to sue the Department of Natural Resources, claiming the herring-protective Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve is a threat to their existence and their allies have called on Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to block Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell’s legislation providing for the Neah Bay tug. The tug has aided 34 ships since 1999, providing needed prevention where oil and cargo carriers have yet to pass a surprise spill drill and pilots or tug escorts are 70 miles away in Port Angeles.

We must prevent major oil spills and restore the Cherry Point herring stock if we hope to recover our dwindling salmon, seabird and whale populations.

It’s time the oil industry becomes part of the solution. With oil approaching $100 a barrel, the industry certainly can afford it.

Fred Felleman of Seattle is a member of Friends of the San Juans.

© 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

~ by fredfelleman on November 26, 2007.

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