Stakeholders voice concerns over Spokane rail initiative

Stakeholders are citing concerns with the legality and negative consequences of a measure in Spokane that would fine the transport of fossil fuels. Photo: Greg Goebel

As the Spokane City Council decides to move a controversial measure to the fall ballot which would fine the transport of certain fossil fuels, stakeholders are citing concerns with its legality and the negative consequences of the measure’s passage to taxpayers and commerce.

They argue proper safety measures are already considered – including the railroads adopting new rail and car technologies and that crude oil is conditioned at its source.

On Monday, July 24, the Spokane City Council elected in a 5-1 vote to move the initiative to the November 7 ballot. Initiative No. 2016-06 would fine rail car owners $261 per car for shipping through Spokane city limits any coal and crude oil that is not pressurized to 8 pounds per square inch(PSI).

Backers of the measure argue it would increase safety for local residents who have to accept additional risk as trains travel within city limits.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Michael Cathcart. “The council could have pursued a judicial review to get a judge to rule on whether or not this is legal and should remain on the ballot.”

Cathcart is executive director of Better Spokane, a Spokane-based civic engagement organization advocating for greater business consideration in public policy decisions.

On Monday, July 31, the council will have the opportunity to place two additional advisory measures on the ballot, he added. This will allow residents to weigh in on the initiative and how the litigation of its effect might be paid for, either by raised taxes or budget cuts.

“The big concern is there will be a significant amount of cost to the taxpayers and residents in the city of Spokane for the significant amount of litigation that will take place in result of this passing.”

Last year, the city of Spokane’s hearing examiner deemed a nearly identical measure illegal as “federal authority over rail operations cannot be usurped through an exercise of local police powers.”

“I would say this measure is largely focused on trying to ban the shipment of fossil fuels. There are other dangerous products out there; chlorine is a great example of one transported by rail,” Cathcart said, “Yet it only essentially targets the fossil fuels.”

He added that the effort is “short-sighted,” as reducing the number of trains traveling through the city would only encourage more trucks on the road which are more likely to be involved in accidents and contribute to local traffic.

“We see this as illegal,” said Courtney Wallace, regional director for Public Affairs with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway. “Federal law preemption has been validated by court… local jurisdictions can’t tamper with interstate commerce, and that is what we see this initiative doing.”

The railroad is a “common carrier” and obligated to move federal products with no say in what they carry, but rather how safely they carry them.

“For us, nothing is more important than safety, and it’s the foundation of what we want – to make sure everything we move, whether it’s grain or fuselage bodies, gets from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ safely,” she added.

“Measures like this hampers interstate commerce,” Wallace continued, “It’s an unfortunate move forward to the ballot, as it is illegal and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The railway uses modern rail cars which feature benefits including better rollover protections and thicker steel for better puncture resistance, and is always looking for ways to improve its safety, she said. That includes a track and bridge inspection program and the installation of detectors along the rail line for real-time monitoring of the train cars.

The majority of Washington’s crude oil originates in the Bakken crude fields in North Dakota. On July 1, 2015, Governor Jay signed a measure into law which addressed spill prevention and emergency response plans for crude oil traveling through the state. The language updated state law to include a pressure reading for crude oil at 14.69 psi.

And since April 1, 2015, the North Dakota Industrial Commission mandated that oil producers utilize oil-conditioning equipment to reduce the PSI of Bakken crude oil to 13.7 psi before leaving the well site.

According to Commission documents, Bakken crude oil is always produced alongside gas. The conditioning process removes the gas component from the oil before transport.

According to Alison Ritter, the commission held a hearing and took testimony on the science behind crude oil and oil conditioning. She is public information specialist for the commission’s Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division.

“What they determined from that testimony is the definition of stable dead crude oil is where it’s at 14.7 psi, however tests in the field have a plus or minus 1 psi margin of error… so the commission set the standard for 13.7,” adding that this standard ensures the product is stable and has characteristics similar to winter-blend gasoline.

Ritter said confusion relating to safe levels of pressurized crude oil may have stemmed from the Lac-Mégantic train accident four years ago.

On July 6, 2013, trains carrying crude oil derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people and resulting in millions of dollars in cleanup and repairs.

Ritter said there are questions relating to the validity of the commodity sample taken at the site. Also, the crude oil was tested at 9.0 “read vapor pressure,” that is, the correct way to measure gasoline, not crude oil.

“Folks sometimes get those two numbers confused and say the oil at Lac-Mégantic was a 9.0, so we should go lower than that. When you do the conversion to 9.0 real vapor pressure it comes to about a 13.0 vapor pressure (for crude oil).”

“There’s no evidence to suggest that going any lower would make the oil any more safe than the 13.7 standard definition for stable dead crude oil,” according to Ritter, who said that at 14.7, crude oil is considered dead and less likely to explode.

Conditioning the oil is not the “end all, be all solution,” she added, and stakeholders moving the commodity should consider other solutions such as evaluating appropriate track speeds and upgrading rail cars to modern standards.

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