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How forces combined again in Washington state to reject yet another oil terminal

How forces combined again in Washington state to reject yet another oil terminal
Opponents of a proposed oil-handling facility along the Columbia River in Washington state make their feelings known at a public hearing in January 2016. The state last week rejected the project. (Natalie Behring / Associated Press)

Live from a mountain viewpoint named Paradise, the television screen showed Washington Gov. Jay Inslee chatting outdoors last summer with Scott Cohn of the CNBC business channel. With a snow-capped Mount Rainier for a backdrop, Cohn announced that Washington had been named the No. 1 U.S. State for Business in 2017.

Inslee seemed doubly proud of the CNBC award, and why not? His state had earned its top ranking by wooing new businesses at the same time it was purposely rejecting others, passing up billions of dollars in potential jobs, economic growth and future investments if the proposals boosted fossil fuels.

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In a sense, Washington has unofficially become the No. 1 state not to do business in if the project includes long, rattling lines of rail cars transporting oil or coal through crowded cities, past farmlands and pristine waterways.

As of a few years ago, more than a half-dozen crude-by-rail projects were seeking approval in just the western part of Washington, at ports along the Pacific Coast and Columbia River.

To date, none have succeeded.

Even as the Trump administration has tried to bolster the fossil fuel industry, proposed oil and coal projects in Washington state have been undone again and again by a skeptical state government and the vigorous opposition from Native American tribes and environmental groups, which warn of spills and explosions. And in liberal Washington state, opposition to these projects has been largely well-received by the public.

The latest rejection came last week when Inslee gave thumbs down to what would have been the nation's largest crude oil rail port in Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia from Portland, Ore.

The $210-million terminal would have received a daily average of 360,000 barrels of crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, via tanker trains 1.5 miles long.

Five of those trains would have passed through Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, and the city of Vancouver daily. The oil was to be loaded at the Port of Vancouver onto ships headed for refineries in Washington, California and Alaska.

Inslee, a liberal Democrat who considers slowing if not stopping climate change one of his priorities, said he was worried about the threat posed by "catastrophic" earthquakes, oil spills that could clog the Columbia and reach the ocean, and the potential for fire or explosions at the facility.

"When weighing all of the factors considered against the need for and potential benefits of the facility at this location," the governor told state regulators in a Jan. 29 letter, "I believe the record reflects substantial evidence that the project does not meet the broad public interest standard necessary for the [site evaluation ] council to recommend site certification."

The project's developer, Vancouver Energy, a joint venture of Tosoro and Savage oil companies, said Inslee was backing a "faulty recommendation" by the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

After four years of studying the terminal, the council has established "an impossible standard for permitting new energy facilities in the state," the company said in a Jan. 30 rebuttal to Inslee. "This decision sends a clear anti-development message from state leadership that will have far-reaching negative impacts for industries across Washington state."

Vancouver Energy can still appeal the rejection should it file a court challenge within 30 days, but did not indicate what its next step might be.

To the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the governor's rejection "showed that the health of the Columbia River and the safety of its citizens matters most," the commission said in a statement.

Dan Serres, conservation director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, said the proposal was "absurdly dangerous and destructive," and posed "far too great a risk to the Columbia, its salmon, and its people."

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The Sierra Club's Michael Brune called the outcome "further proof that Big Oil is no match for communities that organize and fight back against the dirty fossil fuels of the past."

Other budding developers over the years have just given up in Washington state when challenged by anti-terminal citizen groups, environmentalists and public officials who have united in opposition. Three crude-by-rail terminals planned for the Aberdeen-Hoquiam waterfront in coastal Grays Harbor County, for example, were effectively stopped in the last two years by local opposition and legal challenges.

The Quinault Indian Nation, in tandem with the law group Earthjustice, sued two of the Grays Harbor developers, successfully persuading the state Supreme Court to agree the terminals violated the state Ocean Resources Management Act. A third Harbor developer quietly gave up its proposal to erect an $80-million shipping terminal.

Last year, the state rejected a permit sought by Millennium Bulk Terminals for a $680-million terminal in Longview to export coal mined in Montana and Wyoming to Asia. Millennium is still fighting for the project in court. Millennium planned to store the equivalent of 50 football fields of coal between the Columbia and a low-income residential area.

The state hasn't completely shut out oil terminal shipments. It's home to long-existing rail-oil terminals located at two refineries in Ferndale operated by BP and Phillips 66, and the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes.

A 2015 report by the Sightline Institute of Seattle noted that trains headed to those refineries travel beneath downtown Seattle inside the Great Northern tunnel. If all the projects proposed in recent years had been completed, rail traffic in the tunnel would have grown to 14 oil trains a day, carrying up to 1 million barrels of crude, Sightline predicted.

Inslee, taking advantage of a favorable political climate, says the state must seek out safer, cheaper energy sources. Derailments and massive train explosions such as the tragedy at Lac-Megantic, Canada, that killed 47 people, along with President Trump's enthusiastic support for fossil fuel expansion, has the public looking closer at the risks and real costs of greenhouse gases, according to the governor and environmental activists.

All of which has helped Inslee find a workable middle ground. As he said accepting the award for the state's No. 1 business ranking:

"Why did we top the list? Because we're the most talented state, the most connected state and the most innovative state in the union. My top priority as governor is to continue to nurture our thriving economic climate that spurs job growth and keeps us at the top echelon for years to come. We know that a cleaner planet, happy and healthy workers and a growing economy can go hand-in-hand."

Anderson is a special correspondent.

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