Exports in Salish Sea, risks beyond climate change

By Stephanie Buffum

Special to the Weekly

The Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned much national attention recently for the damage it would do to the climate. But another potential climate disaster is playing out in our region that we must all be actively involved in stopping.  Coal and oil exported from our area, and transiting around our islands, would be capable of delivering enough fuel to release 277.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide when burned. Keystone XL could emit 149 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

When burned, the fossil fuels exported from our region contribute to our global carbon footprint which has the highest concentrations of greenhouse gases the Earth has experienced in more than 800,000 years.  The industrial release of pollution from power plants, vehicles and industries has boosted global temperatures, led to the acidification of oceans which now threatens our state’s $120 million annual shellfish economy, changed global weather patterns resulting in increased flooding, caused sea levels to rise, has led to more forest fires and increased asthma rates for children in areas where pollution is concentrated.

The biggest risk beyond climate change – an oil spill

Over the past three years, new or expanded exports for coal, oil and now liquefied natural gas have resulted in vast increases of export from ports in British Columbia and Washington state that must transit through the southern Strait of Georgia, around the Gulf and San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During this time, three vessel oil spill risk assessments have been completed for projects in the Salish Sea. The most comprehensive evaluation of all vessel traffic is the 2014 Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment.

According to the VTRA 2010 Study, the projected growth in ship traffic greatly increases the spill risk. Kinder Morgan’s tankers alone would almost triple the risk of an accident in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass and more than double the risk in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Rail traffic and marine waters

The expanded oil refineries in Anacortes off March Point require rail traffic over marine water bodies.  Recent derailments have caused explosions and multiple deaths. Forty-seven people died in an oil train derailment in Canada last year that also destroyed the down town of Lac-Mégantic and left an ecological nightmare along the lake and river’s shoreline.

Our marine system needs to assess its capacity to anchor and bunker larger ships; to ensure safe shipping with increased tug and pilotage assistance; and to study the risks of human health, treaty-protected rights, environment and our economy from increase cumulative rail and vessel traffic.

Get Involved

1. Comment on the Shell oil-by-rail facility on Jan. 29 in Mt. Vernon.  The Skagit County Hearing Examiner is holding a public hearing on this proposed facility, which would route six new oil trains per week through our region.  The risks of increasing train traffic on our communities and waterways should be thoroughly studied.

2. Support Governor Inslee’s comprehensive Oil Transportation Safety Bill (SB 5087) during the 2015 legislative session.

3. Stand with the Lummi Nation and ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit to build the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal. On Jan. 5, the Lummi Nation formally requested that the Army Corps deny this permit because it violates their treaty rights.  They need our support.

— Editor’s Note: Stephanie Buffum is the Executive Director of Friends of the San Juans. Visit www.sanjuans.org for more information about commenting opportunities.