The Fight to Stop An Oil Pipeline (On Rails) In Its Tracks

New trains, terminals, and refineries proposed in the Northwest put wildlife and communities at risk. Here’s how locals are taking action.

North America's oil boom may soon pose a serious threat to birds and other wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to proposals to transport the spoils straight through the region. All the crude oil coming out of the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Alberta tar sands in Canada has to go somewhere to be processed into useable product, and proposals by several oil companies threaten to create a major rail corridor that could shuttle more than a million barrels of crude oil a day from the oil fields to terminals and refineries in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, putting the region at risk for major oil spills.

To prevent the Pacific Northwest from this fate, Stand Up to Oil, a broad coalition of groups including many Audubon chapters, is spreading the word that derailments, spills, and explosions could devastate communities and ecological habitats along the rail route and near storage and processing facilities. And the group is urging locals to take action by signing petitions demanding these projects be subject to an environmental impact statement before they’re allowed to proceed, hoping to stop the projects in their tracks. Here’s what they’re up against.

A Train Route to Rival a Pipeline

Bakken crude has been freighted into the Northwest since 2012, and today there are eight port terminals and refineries in the region to receive it, with more on the way: According to a report from the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, there are proposals (in varying stages) to build seven new Northwest refineries and port terminals, in addition to a new railcar receiving facility at an existing refinery. Based on Sightline's estimates, operating at full capacity, the existing and proposed projects together would bring more than 100 mile-long trains loaded with crude oil through the region every week. According to the Sightline report, "if all of the oil-by-rail projects were built, they would be capable of moving 1,019,872 barrels per day—nearly as much as the combined capacity of the two controversial pipelines planned in British Columbia, and 23 percent more than the planned Keystone XL pipeline, all of which are designed to ship Canadian crude." (President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada's proposal for Keystone XL last week.)

Why is the industry so eager to get its oil to the Northwest? For now, crude oil that enters the region is destined for refineries there and near the San Francisco Bay Area. But if the 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil were to be lifted—something the oil industry is working hard to pull off—the resource could be shipped on to Asia. "We are in the bull's-eye in large part because we are the fastest and most efficient route to the Asian market," says Rebecca Ponzio, director of Stand Up to Oil and oil campaign director for the Washington Environmental Council.

In Washington, where most of the developments are planned, concerned parties are calling for a more careful review of environmental impacts of the proposed projects. They’re also educating and rallying the public, encouraging people to speak out against the plans during mandated public hearings and comment periods, in the hope that doing so will sway decision makers, including the governor of Washington, the Army Corps of Engineers, and local municipalities.

"People play a critical role in letting decision makers know what is at risk—and why they are opposed," Ponzio says. It wouldn’t be the first time public opposition threw a wrench into the plans of oil giants. Several years ago in the town of Hoquiam, near the central Washington coast, two oil companies successfully pushed their terminal plans through the permitting process while avoiding any environmental impact statements, public hearings or comment periods. But in 2013, groups including the Grays Harbor Audubon Society, Friends of Grays Harbor, and the Quinault Indian Nation successfully sued the City of Hoquiam and the Washington State Department of Ecology to get those permits invalidated until the public could comment on draft environmental impact statements. Recently, activists fought for and won an extension on the comment period for the projects, which is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the city councils of Portland, Oregon, and nearby Vancouver, Washington, are waging their own battles against a proposed terminal in Vancouver that would receive as much as 380,000 barrels of Bakken crude every day. In June the Vancouver City Council passed a resolution opposing the terminal, and last Wednesday the Portland City Council passed its own resolution objecting to any projects that would bring more oil train traffic through either city. And this week the Portland City Council is expected to vote on a resolution aimed at preventing the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city.

What’s At Stake—for Birds and People

The threats from oil transport aren't theoretical. In 2013, an oil train derailment and explosion in a small town in Quebec killed 47 people. Since then there have been several major derailments in the U.S., causing blasts and spills in Illinois, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Were such a derailment to occur in the Northwest, it wouldn’t just threaten people. "The train route goes along the Columbia river—a critical ecosystem and a major producer for salmon—along the shorelines of Puget Sound, and through Pacific Flyway priority spots," Ponzio says. In the town of Hoquiam, a spill near any one of three proposed crude oil terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor would put hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds at risk. The site for one of the proposed projects, Grays Harbor Rail Terminal, is directly across the street from the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.

"There are about 21 species of shorebirds that frequent the harbor in the spring as they migrate up to their breeding grounds in Alaska and again in the fall on their way back to central America and south America where they winter," says Arnie Martin, president of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society (which is also part of the coalition). The western population of Red Knots is especially vulnerable to an oil spill—the sandpipers depend on worms and crustaceans from the Grays Harbor mudflats, which could be oiled over by a spill. "If they don't get food here, they're not going to make it up to the Arctic for their breeding," Martin says.

While people who support the plan often cite the economic benefit, critics of the oil developments say the projects will threaten more existing jobs than they will create. "There are approximately 2,000-plus jobs in marine resources in our area—crabbing, fishing, gill-netting, raising oysters, etc.—that are endangered by having these projects," Martin says of the Grays Harbor region.

Between the threats to the economy, habitat, bird species, and human lives—not to mention the fact that burning the crude will contribute to climate change—it seems the best move is simply to…well, stand up to oil.

How to Help

If you want to take action, click here to voice your opposition to the development of oil terminals in Grays Harbor by November 30.