Vancouver, Washington – Stand on the banks of the mighty Columbia River, and in the foggy mist of a Pacific Northwest winter, you may miss the rail tracks that lie on both of its banks. The panoramic vista will give you a sense of why front-line communities have long vowed to protect it from being expanded into a high-volume fossil-fuel corridor, years before Congress lifted the ban on US crude oil exports in late 2015.
The Columbia, which rises in the Canadian Rockies and flows on a long southern journey before it empties into the Pacific Ocean, has been central to the region’s culture and economy for thousands of years. Its salmon runs were sacred to Columbia River basin Indigenous tribes. Its scenic beauty has been protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Its energy has been captured for hydropower, irrigation and shipping. The first railroad came to the Columbia River Gorge in 1851 and in the new century, tracks were laid along both sides of its banks for freight and passengers.
Today, the tracks carry volatile light crude from the Bakken shale fields and carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, as well as coal and liquefied natural gas. In 2008, a nominal amount of crude passed through the area; by 2012, it had doubled and by 2015, tripled. Proposals to expand capacity with refineries, rail spurs and terminals up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast have been met with fierce resistance, in particular since 2012, and this resistance has often resulted in delays, mounting costs or cancellations. A proposal to build North America’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the mouth of the Columbia in Vancouver, Washington, could prove to be the most contentious yet. The lifting of the crude oil export ban – which happened in mid-December – is a shot across the bow, confirming for many that the frenzy to build capacity from Midwestern reserves to the Pacific Coast was always designed for Asian markets.
The proposal by Tesoro, a Texas oil company, and Savage, a Utah logistics company, would handle an average of 360,000 barrels of oil by rail per day. The joint venture between the two companies, Vancouver Energy, was controversial from the moment it became public in 2013. This January public testimony will be heard on a draft environmental impact statement issued by Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The proposed oil-rail terminal generated 32,000 comments when news of it first surfaced, the majority in opposition. Columbia River tribes, including the Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs, as well as Coast Salish tribes, among others, have united with longshoremen, fire districts, city councils, small towns, cities, environmentalists who’ve worked for decades to restore and recover habitat for salmon at the mouth of the river, and developers who’ve spent millions restoring the Port of Vancouver waterfront where the oil-by-rail terminal would be built. Many are members of the campaign Stand Up to Oil, Communities Fueling Change.