By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW
Washington lawmakers made oil-train safety one of the first big issues to tackle this session, holding their first hearing Thursday on ways to prevent and prepare for the possibility of a spill or derailment.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, introduced his bill first, followed by a bill from Democrats, at the request of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. The bills are being heard in this afternoon’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy Environment and Telecommunications.
The hearing comes four days into the current session of the Washington Legislature.
Northwest states have seen a dramatic increase in oil-train traffic as more crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch is being sent to West Coast refineries.
Ericksen’s bill requires the Department of Ecology to take charge of the review of oil-spill response plans and provide grants for equipment for first responders. He’s proposing to funnel $10 million from the Model Toxics Control Account into the Department of Ecology to pay for those grants. The bill also expands the current tax of 5 cents per barrel on oil that arrives in the state. Currently it applies only to those brought in by ship, but would apply to oil-by-rail under Ericksen’s plan.
In Thursday’s Hearing Ericksen said his bill isn’t strictly focused on reducing risk of an oil-train disaster.
“I believe this piece of legislation is a big step towards helping us achieve energy independence in North America and doing it in a way that will protect the citizens of Washington state,” he said.
Representatives of oil and rail companies testified in support of Ericksen’s bill.
Environmentalists weren’t so pleased with Ericksen’s bill.
“From our standpoint it simply lacks meaningful safeguards necessary to protect our communities in the face of this growing threat that we see to our land, our waters, from the movement of oil trains,” said the Sierra Club’s Bruce Wishart.
Ericksen’s bill does not extend the barrel tax to oil that arrives by pipeline, nor does it increase transparency requirements from oil and rail companies, as Gov. Jay Inslee’s bill does.
The governor’s bill, supported by several fellow Democrats in the Legislature, imposes new rules on tanker and barge shipments, and further extends the oil-spill taxation program to pipelines. It also grants greater authority to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to increase staff and inspections along oil train routes through the state.
“Transparency and safety need to be the focus of our efforts here in Olympia,” said Tulalip Sen. John McCoy, the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee’s ranking Democrat. “We can’t put the interests of the oil industry over the safety of our impacted communities.”
Although the federal government alone has the authority to impose many safety measures, the democrats argue that states do have control over some key aspects related to transparency, accountability and taxation. The Washington Department of Ecology conducted a study in 2014 to evaluate the risks associated with the vast increase of oil transported by rail through Washington. The final report is due in March.
Inslee’s bill did not get a hearing Thursday. Ericksen said he looks forward to further discussion on his bill in the Senate.