Tap oil shippers to pay for spill prevention and response

Oil trains that travel through Washington loaded with volatile Bakken crude present the same potential for disaster as those that travel through California. But there’s one big difference: California is able to fund emergency response if the worst-case scenario happens; Washington would be hard-pressed to.

That’s because California charges a 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee on oil coming in by train, bringing in an estimated $11 million a year for oil spill prevention and emergency cleanup. Washington charges nothing for oil shipments by rail, only for ones coming into ports.

That has to change. When Gov. Jay Inslee presents his proposal to address rail transport of oil in the next legislative session, it should include a request for a per-barrel fee earmarked for prevention and response efforts.

With so many other funding challenges facing the state – from basic education to mental health – why should state taxpayers fund emergency response for oil spills or accidents when an untapped revenue source is available to pay for it? If the oil industry can live with the 6.5-cent fee in California, why not in Washington?

A new report prepared by the state Department of Ecology in conjunction with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission calls for additional railroad inspectors as well as more equipment and increased emergency preparedness and response efforts. That’s going to cost millions – millions the state doesn’t have.

Companies that profit from the oil shipments should pay to ensure state and local governments’ ability to act effectively if there’s a spill or explosion.

In addition to shaping a 2015-17 legislative package, the governor is putting pressure on the federal government to act more quickly on rail safety. He wants the Obama administration to shorten the time frame for phasing out the industry’s oldest, most dangerous tanker cars from two years to one.

Those cars have shown to be more susceptible to breaching and were involved in the massive 2013 explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. These same cars regularly carry Bakken oil through downtown Tacoma and Seattle, near the city’s sports stadiums.

Inslee is also right to demand a lower speed limit – 30 mph – for trains using the old cars. Higher speeds increase the chance of an explosion if the cars derail.

Decreasing the risk of an accident and coming up with funds for cleanup if one happens should be top public safety priorities. Any lawmakers who vote against a barrel fee should be prepared to defend that choice to their constituents – particularly ones who live along a train route.