Cities, counties and tribes seek limits on oil and coal shipping

By Chris Winters, The Herald


EVERETT — Oil train explosions might grab headlines, but there are a number of other issues surrounding the shipment of fossil fuels that are bringing a diverse group of local leaders together.

SELA, the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, is providing a forum for local leaders to work together to protect their communities from the negative effects of rising shipments of oil and coal.

More than 150 public officials are listed as members, including mayors and city council members from many Pacific Northwest cities that lie on major rail lines, such as Edmonds, Mukilteo, Everett and Marysville.

SELA’s latest meeting, the sixth since the group was established, included several tribal leaders, uniting native and non-native leaders around a common interest.

“I think this is one of the first initiatives that brings us all together,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr., who attended the Feb. 4 meeting at Everett Community College.

King County Executive Dow Constantine organized SELA a year and a half ago, and the group’s influence now extends into Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

A regional organization is needed to counter the power that international oil, coal and railroad companies have, he said.

“Local elected officials acting individually won’t be able to have an impact on the global or national issues,” Constantine said.

And yet, local communities bear the effects of those same industries, whether it’s the risk of oil spills or fires, coal dust blowing out of passing hoppers, or even traffic jams in cities such a Marysville with a high number of at-grade crossings.

For Tim Ballew, chairman of the Lummi Nation, the issue hit home when SSA Marine applied to build the new Gateway Pacific coal terminal at Cherry Point, close to the Lummi Reservation.

The Lummi were joined by several other tribes, including Tulalip and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, in opposing the project.

Ballew told the SELA attendees that effects of increased shipping on native fishing grounds as well as the development of the terminal in an area of spiritual and archaeological significance present a challenge to the tribe’s treaty rights.

“At the heart of the issue, with all of these negative impacts that will come to our community and compromise the integrity of the place we live in, the benefits won’t really go to the people,” Ballew said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to issue a ruling soon on the project’s permit.

Keeping the focus on a single issue has allowed SELA to transcend partisan boundaries, too, Constantine said.

Tribes seek to protect their treaty rights, cities fear derailments and traffic blockages, and rural communities find that fossil fuels are taking up more rail capacity and squeezing out agricultural products.

One 2012 study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils predicted that rail traffic of wheat, corn and soybeans will have to compete with coal and oil for space on trains, resulting in longer delays in getting to market. There were 38.3 million tons of agricultural products shipped to Asia through Pacific Northwest terminals in 2010.

“Farming and ranching and orchards are tough enough businesses without piling on the added burden of getting goods to market,” Constantine said.

David Browneagle, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, pointed out that pollution ultimately doesn’t discriminate who it affects.

“Coal dust will go into all our lungs together,” Browneagle said. “It’s not going to come off the train and say ‘Hmm, that’s an Indian, so I’ll go in him.’ ”

He added his great-great grandfather tried and failed to prevent the railroads from arriving in Indian Country, but that it’s a good thing that this group was doing something now to push back.

Megan Smith, director of Climate and Energy Initiatives in Constantine’s office, has been tracking progress and the public comment windows of new terminal projects in the northwest, as well as coordinating those comments from a large number of local officials.

So far, SELA members have sponsored successful legislation in Olympia, in the form of tougher safety regulations on oil trainsas well as in Oregon, which has enacted a similar law, Smith said.

The work won’t stop at Cherry Point or with a few state laws. Another proposal, the Tesoro Savage oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington, will enter the environmental review stage possibly by the end of the year, said Beth Doglio, the campaign director of the environmental nonprofit Climate Solutions.

Tesoro Savage could become the largest terminal on the West Coast, Doglio said. The oil and coal boom is fueling interest in other projects all over the country.

“We are definitely a movement together that has been very strong, very clear in the message that this is not what we want in the state of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota,” Doglio said.

Tulalip Chairman Sheldon said SELA is helping different groups learn to work together and trust each other. That may lead to identifying other common interests.

“When you get leaders coming together with good issues, issues that bond us together, that to me really is the formula for success,” he said.

New Oil Train Rules Get Mixed Reactions In Northwest

File photo of oil train tankers in a Portland railyard.Tony Schick/OP
File photo of oil train tankers in a Portland railyard.
Tony Schick/OP


By Tony Schick, OPB

Oil trains are getting stronger tank cars, better brakes, slower speed limits and  possibly new routes. Many in the Northwest say that’s still not enough.

Federal transportation regulators in the U.S. and Canada released a sweeping set of final rules Friday with more stringent requirements for railroads hauling flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol. The rules come one day after Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and four of their Democratic colleagues introduced a wide-ranging bill intended to bolster oil train safety including a fee on oil shipments made in old, puncture-prone tank cars.

“It’s a meaningful step but it doesn’t do enough,” Wyden said Friday of the federal rule. “It doesn’t move quickly enough to secure Oregon communities from the risk of flammable oil trains.”

The Department of Transportation rules would require new electronic brake systems for all trains carrying flammable liquids at speeds above 30 miles per hours by the year 2021. Current air brake technology is nearly a century old. The brake system has been involved in a number of derailments, including the deadly explosion in Lac Megantic in 2013 that set off widespread concern about oil by rail.


Aerial view of charred freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. The photo was taken the day after the train of crude oil derailed in 2013. It claimed 47 lives. Aerial view of charred freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. The photo was taken the day after the train of crude oil derailed in 2013. It claimed 47 lives. Transportation Safety Board of Canada


Air brakes have also been cited in several whistleblower complaints against railroads, in which workers claim they were pressured to skip or shorten brake tests to keep trains moving on time.

Oil trains would have new speed limits of 50 miles per hour — 40 mph in densely populated areas — and a thorough analysis of routing based on security and safety risks. Oil trains currently move through populated areas in the Northwest like downtown Spokane and Seattle.

Friday’s rules call for a decade-long phase-out of old tank cars, which have been known since 1991 to be puncture-prone. The initial replacement for those cars has increased shielding to protect against punctures, but has also been called inadequate by the National Transportation Safety Board after these newer-model tankers, were involved in a string of fiery derailments. Under the rules, these flawed models would undergo a gradual phase out until 2025.

Many of these requirements are expected to carry significant costs to railroads. BNSF Railway currently hauls more oil by rail through the Northwest than any other railroad. The railroad supports instituting a new generation of tank cars, but indicated in its response to the new rules a resistance to costly upgrades.

“Any regulatory changes that automatically take away capacity will have a devastating impact on our shippers and the economy,” BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino wrote in an email. “Most importantly, capacity is not abundant. The supply chain’s experiences with the recent disruptions at the West Coast ports is clear evidence of the negative impacts substantially reduced capacity will have on the economy.”

Oil-by-rail barely existed a few years ago. But booming North American oil production outpaced pipeline capacity and railroads offered greater flexibility and new markets for energy producers. As many as 17 oil trains per week move through parts of the Northwest, carrying crude from North Dakota, Canada and Utah to refineries and marine terminals in Oregon and Washington. Several other crude-by-rail facilities have been proposed.

Environmentalists, rail workers and safety experts called the rule a positive step, but each pointed out what they think are significant safety gaps.

Jared Margolis, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said he thinks the speed limits are too high and the phase-out of old tank cars too dragged out.

The Center for Biological Diversity has previously sued to prevent oil trains in older tank cars from moving through parts of the Northwest, like the Columbia River Gorge.

“We’ll continue to see derailments and spills even with these new rules in place,” Margolis said.

George Gavalla, a railroad safety consultant with 37 years in the industry, including seven as former head of the FRA safety office, called the new rules “a significant improvement,” particularly for requiring improved tank car designs.

“They also put forth an aggressive, yet reasonable timetable for retrofitting (or replacing) the existing tank car fleet,” Gavalla wrote in an email. “At first blush, the tank car standards appear to go a long way toward improving the tank car safety.”

But, he added, “a big issue that the rule does not address is the volatility of the crude oil, especially the Bakken crude oil.”

Herb Krohn, legislative director for the United Transportation Union in Washington, said the rule appears to be a positive development but it ignores what he calls the “larger issue of monitoring the movement of Haz-Mat trains including adequate crewing.”

Krohn’s union has been pushing for shorter trains and minimum mandatory crew sizes, opposing a railroad movement toward one-man crews.

“The railroad carriers strongly oppose any government regulation regarding train crew size and placement;  this is clear from the complete absence of any mention of this critical safety issue,” Krohn said Friday. “The omission of this issue leaves a huge gap in public safety.”


Warm Ocean Temperatures Could Mean Trouble For Marine Life

An emaciated sea lion pup in California's Channel Islands.NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center
An emaciated sea lion pup in California’s Channel Islands.
NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center



by Jes Burns OPB

It’s a double-whammy kind of year for the Pacific.

An unusually warm winter in Alaska failed to chill ocean waters. Then this winter’s El Nino is keeping tropical ocean temperatures high. Combine these and scientists are recording ocean temperatures up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.

“This is a situation with how the climate is going, or the weather is going, that we just haven’t really seen before and don’t know where it’s headed,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist Chris Harvey.

Harvey is a lead scientist on the California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment, which was recently presented to Northwest fisheries managers.

This map shows sea surface temperatures off the West Coast. The darker the red, the farther the temperatures are above average.This map shows sea surface temperatures off the West Coast. The darker the red, the farther the temperatures are above average.

NOAA Fisheries

Pacific Ocean temperatures regularly swing along a temperature spectrum. In fact, scientists have identified multi-decade cycles of warmer and cooler water.

“But right now, in the last couple of decades, we feel like we’ve seen maybe a little bit less stability in those regimes,” Harvey says.

This year, the temperatures are particularly high. The effects already appear to be rippling up and down the food chain.

When the ocean is warmer, it is less nutrient rich.

The humble copepod is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Copepods are small, crab-like organisms that swim in the upper part of the water column. They’re basically fish food for young salmon, sardines and other species.

But NOAA scientists have described the difference between cold-water copepods and warm-water copepods as the difference between a bacon-double cheeseburger with all the fixin’s and a celery stick.

Cold-water copepods are fattier and more nutrient-rich, making them a higher-value food for fish.


This warm-water copepod collected off Oregon this winter. They provided provide less energy to salmon and other fish than cool-water species. This warm-water copepod collected off Oregon this winter. They provided provide less energy to salmon and other fish than cool-water species. NOAA Fisheries/Northwest Fisheries Science Center


“The copepods that we associate with warmer water, which is what we’re seeing develop off the West Coast right now, tend to have lower energy content,” Harvey says. “There’s going to be probably an abundance of copepods out there, just not the high-energy ones we associate with higher fish production.”

Scientists are already making connections between these lower-nutrient waters and seabird die-offs in the Northwest and the widespread starvation of California sea lion pups, as well.

The warm water isn’t all bad news for Northwest fisheries. Some  fish that like warm water, like albacore tuna, may be more abundant this year in waters off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

Harvey says the science suggests fisheries managers might want to take a more cautious approach when setting harvest rates in the coming years. But what these record-high temperatures say about the longer-term health of Northwest fisheries and other coastal wildlife is still unclear.

“For me the jury is out on this,” Harvey says. “We’re going to have to wait a couple years before we know if this was just a really, really bizarre bump in the road or if there’s more to it.”

Wyoming Lawmakers Approve Spending For Northwest Coal Ports

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead during a June 3, 2014 visit to the proposed site of the Bulk Millenium coal export terminal in Longview Washington.Cassandra Profita/OPB
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead during a June 3, 2014 visit to the proposed site of the Bulk Millenium coal export terminal in Longview Washington.
Cassandra Profita/OPB


By: Earthfix; source OPB

Wyoming lawmakers have passed legislation that would allow the state to finance the construction of coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

On Friday, Wyoming’s state legislature sent to Gov. Matt Mead a bill that would allow the state to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to help fund out-of-state projects, including coal export terminals.

Lloyd Drain, director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, said these projects would be good for Wyoming coal and the Northwest, too.

“If I’m looking at it with my Washington state or Oregon state hat on, I think there’s a lot more benefits to be had than any risk,” he said.  Wyoming plans to send a delegation to Pacific Northwest later this spring to lobby Native American tribes for support.

The Legislature’s vote is the latest in a series of steps by Wyoming politicians to push for the construction of export terminals hundreds of miles away on the West Coast. Last June Wyoming’s governor made a publicized trip to Washington to raise awareness of his state’s interest in moving its coal through the Northwest. Then in October, Mead invited tribes and city and county leaders from the Northwest to visit Wyoming to see the benefits of supporting the export of Wyoming coal coal through their states.

Coal export projects are proposed on Puget Sound near Bellingham, Washington, and on the Columbia River in Longview, Washington. A third, smaller terminal on the Oregon side of the Columbia was rejected last August by state regulators. That decision is being appealed.

The projects have had trouble with financing. In late 2014 Ambre Energy sold its interest in terminals in Oregon and Washington to a private equity firm in order to remain solvent.

This was first reported by Inside Energy, a reporting team based in energy boom states.

What a Record-Low Snowpack Means For Summer In The Northwest

Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the National Resources Conservation Service, checks snow levels at Stevens Pass ski resort in Washington's Cascade Mountains. Ashley Ahearn/KUOW
Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the National Resources Conservation Service, checks snow levels at Stevens Pass ski resort in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
Ashley Ahearn/KUOW


by Ashley Ahearn KUOW


Scott Pattee stands well over 6 feet, but he’s dwarfed by the tall white tube set up near the Stevens Pass Ski Area to measure snow depth.

Little black numbers marking inches of snow ascend the side of the tube. The top number reads 250 inches, an amount of snow that’s hard to imagine right now.

Most of the mountains around Pattee are green and brown, not white – even though it’s officially still winter until March 19 arrives.

And the snow depth, according to the tower?

“We have about 30 inches,” said Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Normally we would have closer to 150 this time of year. It’s not good.”

Actually, it’s really bad. Record-breaking bad.

Pattee has been monitoring snow levels in Washington for more than 20 years. The data he gathers helps scientist study climate trends, farmers plan their growing seasons, hydropower operators manage their reservoirs and municipalities provide water to citizens.

This year is on track to be one of the lowest snow years on record. Across Washington state, average snowpack is 71 percent below normal levels. In some places, including the Olympic Peninsula, snowpack is 90 percent below normal levels.

Things are looking even worse in Oregon. Statewide, average snowpack is 76 percent below normal levels.

“One of our longest-monitored sites, near Bend, has the lowest snowpack ever recorded, breaking the 1977 record,” said Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist in Oregon with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Bend site has been monitored since the early 1950s.

“All eyes will be pointing on southern and southeastern Oregon if things don’t improve,” Koeberle said. Some of the lowest snow levels can be found in those areas, where water scarcity has created drought conditions in recent years.

However, despite dire warnings about low snowpack, things aren’t looking desperate, yet on all fronts. That’s because the Northwest is seeing normal or above-average amounts of overall precipitation, it’s just coming as rain instead of snow.

“The snowpack is bad but the overall conditions aren’t that horrible. It’s above normal precipitation all over the state, and so we’re in pretty good shape there for now,” Pattee said, adding that the region could see drought later in the summer.

The Bonneville Power Administration manages 31 federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and provides one-third of the electricity consumed in the Northwest. Mike Hanson, spokesman for BPA, said things are looking normal.

“We’re doing just fine at the moment,” Hanson said, adding that the reservoirs above the dams are at normal levels. The Columbia River’s headwaters are in the Canadian Rockies, which are seeing normal snow levels this year.

“When we’re looking out our windows here and it seems very little snow, mild winter, conditions up at ski resorts are horrible, but that’s not really an indication of the total picture,” Hanson said. “Right now it looks like all systems are running normally and we are closely watching what is happening out there. We feel OK with where we’re at.”

The City of Seattle gets its water supply from the Tolt and Cedar rivers east of the city. Reservoirs managed by Seattle Public Utilities are currently above normal, and it plans to keep them full, even as it anticipates a warm dry spring with little additional rainfall.

“We don’t need snow to have a good water supply as long as it rains, which it has been,” said James Rufo-Hill, meteorologist and climate adaptation specialist with Seattle Public Utilities. “We’ll hold a little more water in our reservoirs and constantly manage that flow. We can meet demands throughout the summer.”

Resource managers, hydropower operators and others have referred to the snow levels and warm temperatures this year as “anomalous.” Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, agrees, but she said it’s an anomaly worth noting.

“It’s a really useful year in the sense that this is the kind of year that all the climate models tell us to expect,” Snover said. “The future looks like this. The future looks like less snow because of warmer temperatures but not necessarily less precipitation.”

Snover said water managers and hydropower operators need to be nimble.

“In many cases, the water managers who are paying attention to conditions can change the way they manage their systems and catch that water as it’s going down the river because it fell as rain instead of snow,”  she said.

But for other basins or municipalities that are heavily reliant on surface water, without reservoirs to store it, the lack of snow this year presents a challenge. Places like Sequim and Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are heavily reliant on rivers that are largely fed by snowpack from the Olympic Mountains, which are at record-setting low snow levels.

In drier parts of the region, meeting irrigation demands for agriculture could also prove challenging later on in the summer and early fall.

Pattee with the Natural Resources Conservation Service also cautioned that the wet, warm spring has started an early growing season, which could provide more fuel for wildfires later on in the dry season. For now he said the biggest impacts of low snow levels this year will be felt by recreationists and fish.

Without the strong pulse of cold snow melt, some Northwestern rivers could prove less hospitable to spawning salmon and their out-migrating young, Pattee said.

Regional water managers  will brief  Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on the snow situation early next week. Pattee said it’s too early to say if a drought declaration is in order but it is a concern.

“We’re going to have to sleep with one eye open this spring and summer and really keep a close eye on conditions and see which way the wind blows,” he said.

Northwest Faces Greater Risks From Acidifying Waters

Pacific Oysters are most vulnerable to corrosive waters during their first few days of life at the time when forming shells are critical to their survival.Katie Campbell
Pacific Oysters are most vulnerable to corrosive waters during their first few days of life at the time when forming shells are critical to their survival.
Katie Campbell


By Cassandra Profita, OPB


The Pacific Northwest faces a higher risk of economic harm from ocean acidification than other parts of the country, according to a new study released Monday.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found a “potent combination” of risk factors along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. The region has cold ocean water that absorbs carbon dioxide more readily than warmer water, and it has upwelling ocean currents that bring corrosive water to the surface.

Meanwhile, the Northwest also has a well-developed shellfish industry that produces more than $100 million a year in sales and supports thousands of jobs. Shellfish hatcheries in northern Oregon supply oyster larvae to the entire region’s aquaculture industry.

George Waldbusser, an ocean science professor at Oregon State University and co-author of the study, said it was the first time scientists analyzed social vulnerability as well as the natural hazards of ocean acidification.

“The major finding is that different parts of the country are vulnerable for different reasons,” he said. “In some parts of the country, the social vulnerability is quite high whereas the actual CO2 effect on the waters was a bit lower.”

Waldbusser said while ocean upwelling does create  a “hot spot” for acidification in the Northwest, the region also has a lot of resources within universities and marine labs devoted to mitigating the negative impacts on the shellfish industry.

“We are still finding ways to increase the adaptive capacity of these communities and industries to cope, and refining our understanding of various species’ specific responses to acidification,” he said. “Ultimately, however, without curbing carbon emissions, we will eventually run out of tools to address the short-term and we will be stuck with a much larger long-term problem.”

Study co-author Julie Ekstrom at the University of California-Davis said the risks to the Northwest shellfish industry are already fairly well known.

“Ocean acidification has already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million and jeopardized about 3,200 jobs,” she said.

major oyster die-off in Oregon from 2006 to 2008 called attention to the problems acidic water can cause for developing shellfish, who depend on calcium carbonate to build their shells. Ocean acidification reduces carbonate in the water, making it harder for shellfish and corals to survive.

W.Va. Oil Train Derailment Has NW Lawmakers Thinking About Safety

Reports say up to 18 oil trains a week travel along the Washington side of the Columbia River, and up to six oil trains a week are traveling through the state of Oregon along the Columbia River and through central Oregon.Tony Schick
Reports say up to 18 oil trains a week travel along the Washington side of the Columbia River, and up to six oil trains a week are traveling through the state of Oregon along the Columbia River and through central Oregon.
Tony Schick


By Courtney Flatt, OPB


This week’s fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia has lawmakers thinking about oil-by-rail safety through the Northwest. There has been a dramatic increase in oil trains traveling through the region to reach West coast refineries.

Committees in the Washington legislature are considering two bills. Senate Bill 5057 — supported by the oil industry — would expand the barrel tax to include oil shipped by rail. House Bill 1449 — supported by environmental groups — could change how oil-by-rail is regulated across the state.

“If there were to be an accident in Washington state, I, personally, would want to be able to say I did everything I could do to make sure that didn’t happen,” Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said during a Ways and Means committee hearing.

Oil safety bills are also moving through the Oregon Legislature.

Darcy Nonemacher, the legislative director for the Washington Environmental Council, said the recent derailment has more people thinking about how oil is transported.

“I think the lesson is that we do need to act. There’s lots of things that need to happen whether it’s at the federal, state, or local level,” Nonemacher said.

The train that derailed in West Virginia was hauling oil with newer tank cars. Those newer designs are supposed to better handle derailments than older cars.

That’s why oil-by-rail critic Eric de Place says oil transportation safety is a major concern.

“We need to just hit pause. We need to stop doing it until we have a way to transport that oil safely, which we don’t have right now,” says de Place, a researcher at Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, which doesn’t support oil-by-rail.

In Washington, the oil and rail industries are supportive of Senate Bill 5057. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, will also take $10 million from the Model Toxics Control Account to allow the state Department of Ecology to provide grants for equipment and first responders.

“We believe it’s critical to implementing the policy in the underlying bill. We also believe this funding complements the efforts we have underway within the railroad to train locally first responder preparation efforts,” said Bill Stauffacher, with BNSF Railway.

House Bill 1449 would require planning for oil spill response in Washington state and it would require companies to disclose information about transportation routes.

Tribes Reluctant To Follow Northwest Voters On Legal Marijuana

File photo. Northwest tribes are in no rush to legalize marijuana.Austin Jenkins Northwest News Network
File photo. Northwest tribes are in no rush to legalize marijuana.
Austin Jenkins Northwest News Network


By Jessica Robinson, NW News Network

The U.S. Department of Justice this week opened the door to a legalized pot market on tribal land.

But many Northwest tribes appear to be in no rush to go in the direction of Oregon and Washington voters.

The Department of Justice said it will treat Indian tribes that legalize pot with the same hands-off prosecutorial approach that it’s treated states with legal pot. That means there could be a potentially lucrative marijuana business on reservations even in states like Idaho, where pot remains illegal.

But it’s still up to the tribe.

Charles Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said drug law enforcement is a matter of public health.

“The tribe will continue to prosecute and cite those folks who are in violation of those laws,” he said.

In Washington, the Yakama Nation wants to ban sales both on its reservation and on millions of acres of surrounding land where it has treaty rights.

The Department of Justice decision came as a surprise to many tribes. The policy adviser for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in north Idaho said legalizing pot hadn’t even been on the tribe’s radar.

Warming Ocean May Be Triggering Mega Methane Leaks Off Northwest Coast

Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is one-third of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep. | credit: Brendan Philip / UW
Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is one-third of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep. | credit: Brendan Philip / UW


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

SEATTLE — As the waters of the Pacific warm, methane that was trapped in crystalline form beneath the seabed is being released. And fast.

New modeling suggests that 4 million tons of this potent greenhouse gas have escaped since 1970 from the ocean depths off Washington’s coast.

“We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast,” said Evan Solomon, a University of Washington assistant professor of oceanography and co-author of the new paper, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The modeling does not indicate whether the rate of release has changed as temperatures warm, but it does strengthen the connection between ocean temperature and methane behavior.

Solomon and his colleagues first learned about the methane leaks when fishermen started sending them photographs of bubbles coming up out of the deep.

“They’re really low quality phone shots of their fish finders, but every single location they gave us was 100 percent accurate,” Solomon said.

On a cruise this past summer, Solomon and his colleagues gathered core samples from the ocean floor, about one-third of a mile deep, at the spots where the fishermen reported seeing bubbles.

And sure enough, mixed in among the sediment, were crystalized methane deposits.

“It looks like slushy ice,” Solomon said. But it certainly behaves differently. “If you took it from the sediment and lit a match or put a lighter on it, it will go into flames because of all the gas.”

Methane can exist in a gas, liquid and crystalline form. The crystalline version, or methane hydrate, occurs at cold temperatures and under pressure – conditions that can be found at certain depths of the ocean. But as deep sea waters warm, scientists believe those crystals will dissolve, releasing the methane in bubbles that can change ocean chemistry and contribute to atmospheric change once they escape at the sea’s surface.

“It’s a way to contribute to ocean acidification if you have a lot of this gas coming out and being oxidized in the water column,” Solomon said.

The methane release isn’t just happening in Washington waters, Solomon says. More sampling needs to be done but the same conditions for methane hydrate release exist from Northern California to Alaska. “So it’s not a Washington central thing,” says Solomon, who is looking forward to further study of this issue. “It should be happening off of Oregon, off of British Columbia as well.”

Other research has found similar patterns of methane release in the Atlantic and off the coast of Alaska.

“It’s a hot topic,” Solomon said.

Northwest Tribes Take Steps To Corral Growing Wild Horse Population

By Tom Banse, NW News Network

Growing populations of wild horses in the inland Northwest are creating headaches for federal land managers. Wild and feral horse herds overrun tribal lands in our region too.

A National Academy of Sciences review of federal wild horse management recommended greater use of birth control injections to control overpopulation. Horse lovers want to see that happen on tribal lands too.

University of Missouri biology professor Lori Eggert, who took part in the National Academy report, said “extensive and consistent” contraception can stabilize a horse population on a range.

“It is not over the short term going to take these horses down population wise,” Eggert said. “It will simply slow the growth. There may have to continue to be some gathers and removals from the range until these populations come down.”

Injecting wild mares with birth control on a regular schedule seemed impractical to the tribal range managers I heard from. Jason Smith of Warm Springs said his tribe does have a castration program. He said it castrates 100-150 wild stallions per year to help with population control.

The question of how to proceed in some ways boils down to different world views. People from animal advocacy groups describe wild horses as intelligent, magnificent creatures, symbols of the West and the embodiment of freedom on the open range. On the reservation, rodeo champion Smith said the horse is a “really respected animal,” but fits another category.

“Warm Springs has always considered the horse as their livestock,” he explained. “It is just like cattle is, livestock. We love our horses. They are our tool. They are our work force.”

Smith said he’s looking forward to the next wild horse inventory on the Warm Springs reservation next spring. He’s hoping to see a major decline in numbers from the 5,700 to 6,000 horses counted by an aerial survey in 2011.

Economics of tribal wild horse management

People with an interest in wild horse management also are keeping an eye on Congress. Members of Congress must soon decide whether to keep a de facto ban on domestic horse slaughter for human consumption. The 2014 federal budget signed by President Obama barred the U.S. Agriculture Department from spending money on necessary inspections of commercial horse slaughterhouses.

The last domestic horse processing facilities closed in 2007 after an earlier Congress withheld funding to provide inspections. That is why horses destined for slaughter are exported to Canada or Mexico.

Last year, the Warm Springs tribe and Yakama Nation joined a lawsuit in federal court in defense of the planned opening of a private slaughterhouse in New Mexico. In written testimony, Yakama Nation biologist James Stephenson described how high transportation costs have undermined the economics of tribal wild horse management.

“Before cessation of horse slaughter in the United States, members of the Yakama Nation could sell horses at a price of approximately $150 to $400 per animal. Now, if you can find a buyer, such horses are often sold for prices of $5 to $20 per head,” Stephenson wrote.

Wild horse advocacy groups are marshaling their arguments to prevent any resumption of domestic horse slaughter. In addition, sympathetic senators and representatives have proposed to go further and ban the transport and export of American horses to foreign slaughterhouses.

However, those measures have not advanced in a gridlocked Congress.

Meanwhile, a Prineville, Oregon-based nonprofit proposes to open a completely different type of facility from a slaughterhouse to take horses removed from tribal lands. Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition founder Gayle Hunt envisions a “horse gentling” program where prison inmates could break wild horses and train more of them to be suitable for adoption or sale as riding horses.

“Problem offenders within the community are actually rehabilitated at the same time they are rehabilitating the wild horses of Warm Springs,” Hunt said while describing her vision.

She credits the idea to a Nevada Department of Corrections program that uses inmates to saddle-train wild horses gathered by the Bureau of Land Management from public lands in Nevada and Oregon.