With five refineries, Washington has long received crude oil from Alaska and elsewhere by ship, barges or pipelines. But ports and refiners are increasingly turning to trains to take advantage of a boom in oil from North Dakota's Bakken region.
Three terminals - in Anacortes, Tacoma and Clatskanie, Ore. - are already receiving crude oil by trains. Other facilities are proposed at the ports of Grays Harbor and Vancouver, and at refineries.
Together, the 10 projects would be capable of moving nearly 800,000 barrels per day, said Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline Institute. "It's a lot of oil that we're talking about moving by train in Washington. It raises new questions about how the state can handle a spill."
The Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is reviewing a proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. for a terminal at the Port of Vancouver to handle up to 380,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Oil arriving by train would be unloaded, stored temporarily and then loaded onto marine vessels to be shipped to refineries on the West Coast.
"We are committed to building and operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," said Kelly Flint, senior vice-president of Savage. He said the project would not only benefit the local community but move the country ahead in energy independence.
Public hearings are scheduled Monday and Tuesday in Vancouver. The council will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say. Construction could begin by late 2014.
Critics say shipping oil by train is risky and could cause environmental harm from leaking oil tanker cars or derailments.
"It's very dangerous to move this stuff by rail," said Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher, pointing to the fiery train disaster in Quebec. In July, 47 people were killed when an unattended train rolled away and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic and several of its oil cars exploded.
The Association of American Railroads says 99.9977 percent of all shipments of hazardous materials, including crude oil, get to their destination without a leak caused by accidents.
BNSF Railway is committed to safety and preventing accidents, said spokeswoman Roxanne Butler. BNSF has invested millions in its infrastructure and trained employees across its network to respond to hazmat incidents, she said. It frequently inspects tracks, uses technology to detect potential equipment failure and maintains special emergency response equipment along routes, she added.
Butler said BNSF currently handles 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day across its entire network. Most of that oil heads to other parts of the country; in the Pacific Northwest, "we average over one train per day to this area," she said in an email.
An oil train typically has about 100 rail cars and each car can hold about 28,000 gallons.
As the transportation of oil shifts from ships and pipelines to trains, officials say they have to change how they prepare for potential oil spills.
"We're monitoring the way that the movement of oil is changing. And we have to think about what changes we need," said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, manager of Ecology's spills preparedness section.
She said the state has been focused on oil coming into the state on ships and pipelines but will need to refocus attention to planning for a crude oil spill in the inland areas.
"The scale of the oil by rail is completely unprecedented and the state is not prepared to deal with a spill," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper.
Environmentalists and others have challenged oil shipping terminals proposed at the Port of Grays Harbor by Westway Terminal Co. and Imperium Terminal Services. They say the projects will bring tens of millions of crude oil through the area each year, increasing train and barge traffic and the risk of oil spills.
The groups won a victory this month when a state hearings board said it would reverse permits issued by Hoquiam and the state to Westway and Imperium. The groups had argued that the agencies failed to do a more complete environmental review.
Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups, said the board identified serious flaws in the permitting and environmental review.
Svend Brandt-Erichsen, an attorney with Marten Law representing Westway, said the decision would create delays but that it wouldn't be hard to get the information needed. "There's not a whole lot of new substantial requirements that will come out of this," he said.
Meanwhile, refiners BP in Blaine and Phillips 66 in Ferndale have received approval from the Northwest Clean Air Agency to build facilities to handle crude oil by rail. To comply with its current air operating permit, the refineries won't be allowed to increase the amount of oil it can process, an agency spokeswoman said.
Company spokesman Rich Johnson said Phillips 66 is building a rail offloading facility capable of handling 30,000 barrels per day of crude oil. "The refinery has received all necessary permits for the project and expects the rail offloading facility to be in operation in the fourth quarter of 2014," he said in an email.
The Shell Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes is also exploring bringing crude oil by rail to replace some supply currently brought in by ship, the company said in materials it submitted to Skagit County planners over the summer.