Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration has been bracing this state for the growing onslaught of potentially explosive oil trains. Now it’s the Legislature’s turn.
Until a couple of years ago, Washington’s five refineries got their crude oil by ship, not rail. That all changed with the bonanza of petroleum from the Bakken Formation in the Dakotas.
As of mid-2014, an average 19 oil trains — “rolling pipelines,” commonly of 100 cars — were traversing the state every week. By 2020, according to a newly released Department of Ecology report, that number is expected to triple, to 57 trains a week.
For perspective, imagine the Tacoma Dome filled to the rafters with petroleum. Then imagine roughly 130 Tacoma Domes full of oil crossing the state in the course of a year. That was 2014.
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Now imagine roughly 400 Tacoma Domes of crude crossing the state. That’s what’s expected in 2020, if current trends hold.
Statistically, any given train carries a very low risk. Relatively few tanker cars come to a bad end. But multiply a minuscule risk by thousands, and it’s no longer minuscule. The proliferation of oil trains in the United States and Canada has produced a harrowing series of derailments, crashes, spills and explosions, some of which have killed people or fouled waterways.
Oil cars jump the tracks in Washington, too. Last July, a train hauling Bakken crude derailed in the middle of Seattle; fortunately, none of the tankers was breached. We won’t always be so lucky.
With the 2015 Legislature in session, the Ecology report couldn’t be more timely. It dissects the risks and offers recommendations the Legislature should to act on before lawmakers adjourn.
The recommendations include:
• More inspectors to monitor the safety of tracks, hazardous shipments and crossing signals.
• More emergency planning.
• Grants to ensure that local firefighters have the equipment to respond to spills.
• Legal measures to expand the scope of inspections and shift more financial responsibility to companies that ship the oil.
The most crucial recommendation is to find ways to pay for preparedness.
The obvious place to look for the money is in the pockets of the companies that profit from shipments. California does this by imposing a 6.5-cent-per-barrel tax. Washington gives the industry a freebie: 0 cents per barrel.
Inslee has asked the Legislature for a tax of 10 cents a barrel on petroleum entering the state by rail, pipeline or ship. Republicans in the Senate are looking at 4 cents per barrel.
Is 10 cents too high? Is 4 cents too low? The answer should be dictated by the actual need.
If 4 cents a barrel can cover the necessary inspections, planning, equipment and training, 4 cents will suffice. If it takes 10 cents, then 10 cents is the right number.
Just remember that this river of crude oil is being hauled through all of the state’s urban counties, passing through or nearby most of its biggest cities. Emergencies are inevitable, and preparation should not be done on the cheap.