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Doing the Math: Counting the Drops in a Fossil Fuel Tsunami

October-November 2013

Cover Story

Doing the Math: Counting the Drops in a Fossil Fuel Tsunami

by Terry Wechsler

Terry Wechsler is a co-founder of Protect Whatcom and recently passed the Washington State Bar. She hopes to soon be licensed as a Washington attorney.

According to the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Native American Chief Seattle stated in the latter part of the nineteenth century, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.” 1 The origin of that statement is debatable but what is not is this: that notion has been codified in the National and Washington State Environmental Acts (NEPA and SEPA). The notion of stewardship reverberates through those statutes, both of which direct agencies to coordinate their respective actions, to the extent practicable, to “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations….”2

Stand Alone Project Review Undermines Governments’ Role as Trustee

NEPA and SEPA both describe, as one means to ensure a sustainable legacy for future generations, permit reviews that consider multiple proposals in a programmatic fashion. Such a review considers multiple proposals together holistically so that their combined effects on a region are fully ascertained. As an example, if it were known that multiple proposals, if all approved, would overwhelm a state’s rail transportation system, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment so that existing freight commodities could move to their respective markets, that would certainly militate for a programmatic review.

This article describes 20 fossil fuel proposals in Washington and the immediate region, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), which, if all approved, could result in over 70 additional train passages through Spokane, Washington, and some number only slightly lower for Longview and Seattle. Here in Whatcom County, we could encounter 15.3 additional round-trip trains, each approximately 1.5 miles long, yet only the Washington Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) announced a broad geographic review that will consider the proposal’s impacts in combination with existing and possible future impacts in determining whether to grant necessary state permits. For that, they were lambasted by terminal proponents, while relief spread through impacted communities along Washington’s rail corridors.

Unlike Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), as lead agency for the federal government in permit reviews under NEPA, made the stunning announcement in July that its scope for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for GPT would not consider any impacts on the land beyond the site.3 What this means is that while the Corps is considering cumulative vessel impacts because they occur in “navigable waters” (a jurisdictional element for that agency), they will not consider cumulative rail impacts of transporting coal to the terminal because, ostensibly, GPT and the BNSF Custer Spur rail proposals are “stand alone” projects not linked to or components of “any linear or corridor project.” 4

In a second stunning announcement regarding Cowlitz County, the Corps announced on September 6th they changed their mind about acting as co-lead with state and county agencies in conducting an EIS for the proposed Millennium Bulk Logistics coal terminal in Longview. That proposal is for a terminal to move up to 44 million metric tons of coal per annum (mmta) to be railed in from the Powder River Basin and exported to China. Though scoping only just opened in Cowlitz County, the Corps’ stated reason for conducting a separate EIS from the Washington Department of Ecology’s was Ecology’s stated broad scope of review for the EIS for the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), according to Corps spokesperson Patricia Graesser as quoted in the Daily News of Longview. That is to say that even before scoping closes for Millennium in mid-November, and before reviewing comments from agencies, the tribes, or the public, the Corps not only knows how Ecology will scope Millennium, but it already knows it disagrees with them.

To be sure, the two agencies’ scope of review for GPT could not be further apart. Ecology stated they will scope not merely impacts at the site, but also related rail and vessel traffic away from the site including “general impacts” beyond Washington’s borders. But the real insult to the Corps was apparently Ecology’s announcement that they will scope the greenhouse gas contribution related to burning the coal in China and its relevance for global climate change. By contrast, the Corps stated they will scope nothing off the site on the land because (1) they’re only here to talk about wetland fill and navigable waters, and (2) they have no jurisdiction over the rails.

The Corps’ announced scope is at direct odds with their own permitting regulations which state they will include the following statement in every public announcement about pending permits:


The caps are theirs, meaning, “We take this very seriously.” Until they don’t. In announcing the scope of Millennium, there is no statement about historic properties, recreation, water supply and conservation, endangered species, or the general welfare of the people. Rather, they announced they were there to consider that which occurs in navigable waters, dredging for a pier, and some wetlands fill. Period.

Even in those navigable waters of the Columbia River, though, the Corps has given no indication it will consider cumulative vessel traffic. That agency knows quite well a court will almost certainly eventually order such a vessel traffic risk analysis for that water body given the scale of Millennium and other pending proposals. It should be déjà vu all over again given that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered just such an analysis for the BP pier expansion at Cherry Point which was completed without benefit of an EIS.

The Ninth Circuit said in the BP pier expansion context, Plaintiff Ocean Advocates was correct in their contention that the Corps could not possibly know what impacts increased tanker traffic would have on area endangered species without a comprehensive vessel traffic risk assessment (VTRA). The Corps subsequently commissioned a study with Glosten Associates which parallels another, being conducted in accordance with the terms of the GPT settlement agreement of 1999. In the case of GPT, it is Ecology overseeing a second Glosten vessel traffic study. Ecology is a co-appellant to the 1999 settlement agreement, along with environmental groups and the League of Women Voters, who together sued Whatcom County for granting Major Project and Shoreline Substantial Development permits, for failure to conduct an adequate study of vessel impacts, or to properly design various conditions and mitigations associated with those permits for an 8.2 mmta terminal which would have received less than one-third the vessels as the current proposal.

The Glosten sister vessel traffic risk assessments (“VTRAs”) are in addition to one previously commissioned by the Corps from George Washington University (GWU) Department of Engineering. The Corps sought that VTRA to comply with the 9th Circuit’s order to conduct an EIS for the BP pier expansion, but abandoned it when GWU demanded peer review for the revisions necessary to update the study based on vessel traffic associated with now-known terminal proposals. The GWU study was continued with funding from the Makah Tribe, and now a group of state and federal agencies with oversight for spill risk prevention and management has assumed responsibility for funding completion of that VTRA.

Growing Vessel Traffic in the Puget Sound

The risk associated with vessel traffic is not just from an oil spill if a tanker has an incident. Dry bulk carriers for commodities such as coal are called “Panamax” (those that can pass through the Panama Canal) and cape class (those too large for the Canal) bulkers, and they are roughly the size of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Unlike double-hulled oil tankers, bulkers are single-hulled and carry, in addition to their cargo, enough bunker fuel – the dirtiest and most viscous type of oil – for their ocean passages, in addition to the cleaner diesel they must burn near land. On average, a bulker carries a half million gallons of bunker fuel. The world fleet is aging and increasingly prone to structural fatique resulting in sinkings; or rudder or engine failures resulting in groundings or allisions. With expansion of world trade, newer crews on foreign flagged carriers increasingly have difficulty understanding English which is an issue in those waters where pilot assistance is required.

GPT’s 487 proposed vessel calls increase risk in the Salish Sea, but it is not the only proposed new terminal in nearby waters. Kinder Morgan is in the process of obtaining permits for a second pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the coast where they seek to build the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C. That terminal would transfer 324 million barrels of crude per year to 358 tankers for export through the Puget Sound. Three other coal terminals proposed for expansion or construction – Neptune, Fraser-Surrey, and Westshore6 — could add another 320 Panamax or cape class bulkers, for a total of 678 additional vessels in the Salish Sea just due to fossil fuel proposals in British Columbia.

Kinder Morgan is also expanding capacity in their existing pipeline to increase delivery to customers including BP Cherry Point and three other refineries — Phillips 66 in Ferndale, and Tesoro and Shell in Anacortes. The refineries claim any additional crude received from North American sources will offset foreign imports and declining Alaska supplies, and they will not increase capacity. This means there should theoretically be no net increase in vessel traffic. However, at the same time tar sands volume increases at the refineries, so will deliveries of Bakken crude from the North Dakota shale beds, delivered by rail.

A Train Here, a Train There Adds Up to Real Impacts

With the advent of new fracking technology, there is an explosion in crude drilling throughout the United States. In the west, the Bakken shale beds are producing without adequate pipelines to move product to all potential customers, so they rely on rail to get to customers on the west coast. Some is bound for existing refineries; some would go to proposed terminals on Washington’s coast and on the Columbia River. The Whatcom and Skagit County refineries are all in the process of receiving permits for rail expansions. As indicated in the table on page 6, there may be 1.5 additional loaded trains per day to the Cherry Point refineries, and two to the Skagit County refineries.

The additional rail traffic in this part of the state may also include 5.8 additional trains bound for British Columbia carrying Powder River Basin (PRB) coal there if all proposed coal terminal expansions come on line and if all new capacity is earmarked for PRB coal. (That is an unlikely scenario, but GPT proponents claim the trains will go to Canada, so this analysis does as well.) For Bellingham, there is the potential for a net increase of 16.3 full trains if GPT (proposing nine loaded trains per day), and all other reasonably foreseeable proposals were completed, or a whopping 33 rail round trips. For Mt. Vernon, the total would be 35. Backing down the coast to the Columbia River, there are nine additional terminal proposals in Tacoma, Grays Harbor, and on the river, to receive crude or coal by rail, adding up to potentially 35 additional loaded trains. Back in Spokane, which is a hub for Bakken crude by rail and Powder River Basin coal trains, there could be 70 additional round-trip train passages.

Twenty Fossil Fuel Transportation Proposals

As described in the table, the proposals south of Skagit County include one crude terminal and a refinery expansion in Tacoma; three new crude terminals in Grays Harbor; and on the Columbia River, two new coal terminals, a coal storage and barge facility, and two crude terminals. To summarize: in British Columbia there are currently three proposed coal terminal expansions, and proposals for one new crude terminal and one new coal terminal; in Washington there are three coal export terminal proposals — one here and two on the Columbia River. Five Washington refineries are expanding rail capacity to receive Bakken crude; and there are six new crude terminal proposals in this state — three in Grays Harbor, one in Tacoma, and two on the Columbia River. Finally, Oregon LNG (liquified natural gas) proposes a new terminal at the mouth of the Columbia River to receive Canadian liquefied natural gas by pipeline for export through a new terminal to the Pacific Rim.

We Need Crude, But…

The coal terminal proposals all represent fossil fuel being exported to the Pacific Rim, which makes Washington a true “gateway,” for fossil fuels that other nations will use for energy while the United States depletes and transports its finite resource with all the impacts that entails. The crude raises different issues because much of it will be used domestically, but at great cost to water resources. Fracking requires over one gallon of water to produce a gallon of crude for a new Bakken well, and four gallons of water for every 10 gallons of crude recovered after the first year, according to Mark Trechock of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, and author of “Gone for Good: Fracking and Water Loss in the West” (Billings, MT, 2013). Then there is the issue of the quality of the environment after chemicals, sand, and acid used in that extraction process have been blown into the ground.

To the extent North American crude replaces imported crude, there may be fewer tankers plowing our waters bringing unrefined product from Russia and other sources. But that is if refinery capacity does not increase and if refineries do not start acting like terminals. If they did, they would be moving Alberta and Bakken crude through from rail to tankers for transfer to other end users. The refineries’ permit applications do not state they intend to export crude, and Julie Harris, Chief of Refinery Operations for the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) does not believe they will, but that is hardly definitive. BP, with its recent pier expansion, certainly has the capacity to increase its vessel traffic. Its rail expansion, if it can accommodate one train per day, could handle two. Or more.

There currently is no way to track the volume of crude moving by rail to refineries, terminals, or anywhere else. Washington used to maintain a Petroleum Markets Databook which tracked the movement of fossil fuels by mode of transportation in Washington, but according to Fred Felleman, Western Representative for Friends of the Earth, that data is no longer compiled. He is calling on the governor to direct the Washington Department of Commerce State Energy Office to reinstate that program. At the federal level, the Energy Information Agency’s (EIA) Transportation Division would track crude by rail and report their findings if they had access to data maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) which tracks the movement of hazardous materials by rail, including crude. But according to EIA Section Chief John Duff, the FRA would require EIA to pay more for this data than its budget allows in these days of fiscal constraint, and without it, the public has only the word of the refineries they are not acting as terminals.

If permitting agencies were reviewing permit applications in toto — that is, programmatically — they might consider cumulative rail and vessel impacts in weighing each proposal’s economic contribution against its relative contribution to total impacts. But what is currently happening with crude proposals for refinery rail expansion in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, and new terminal proposals in Grays Harbor, is something far less than programmatic. The first step of an environmental impact analysis under NEPA and SEPA is a threshold determination of whether impacts of the proposal appear significant enough to require study. If, at that stage, agencies consider a proposal in isolation, as is occurring, what results are “mitigated determinations of nonsignificance,” or MDNS. This is a finding that any impacts are relatively insignificant, a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is not required, and the proponent can mitigate any identified impacts (typically, wetland infill for rail loop construction).

After two crude terminal proposals — Imperium and Westway — received MDNS’s, Earth Justice and a second environmental law firm filed challenges, with arguments scheduled for the first week of October. With a total of 13 proposals in Washington and Oregon, and given scarce resources to mount permit appeals, this is an extremely inefficient way to proceed.

In this context — with a virtual fossil fuel tsunami bearing down on the Pacific Northwest from the north and east — the determination of the Corps that it won’t consider any impacts at all on the land, nor consider multiple proposals programmatically, is more than questionable. It is suspect. They state they will not study rail impacts because that is not their area of expertise, nor do they have jurisdiction over the rails. NEPA anticipates that proposals may have impacts beyond an agency’s reach, and expressly directs EIS lead agencies to associate those that do have the requisite skill and jurisdiction. In the case of GPT and Millennium in Longview, the Surface Transportation Board and its sub-agency, the Federal Railroad Administration, should have been involved from the beginning of the permitting process given that both proposals are for shipping and not storage facilities.

Further, in attempting to justify changing its position on a joint EIS for Millennium based on Ecology’s broad scoping for GPT, the Corps’ Patricia Graesser said that “consistency” would require Ecology to apply the same scope announced for GPT to Millennium. Consistency, however, has not driven federal determinations about scoping in other contexts. The Corps is scoping together GPT and the BNSF Custer Spur proposal which is not “consistent” with other proposals. For example: In Montana the Otter Creek mine is being scoped separately from the Tongue River Railroad spur proposed to link the proposed mine to the main BNSF rail line; and Millennium is being scoped without reference at all to the proposed SR 432 Rail Realignment and Highway Improvement Project in Longview to link Millennium to the BNSF rail line.7

Why Longview is the Poster Child for a Programmatic EIS

While the Corps is not involved in the Montana permit reviews, it should be aware of them because the President’s Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), which advises agencies on NEPA compliance, is tracking these various proposals. It is possible the federal government and its agencies fear a slippery slope for the Corps. With the first proposal on the Columbia River now in scoping, there are real programmatic issues for that area. “From pit to port,” as the environmentalists say, there are related proponents for the coal proposals. Arch Coal, co-applicant for the permits to build Millennium, owns the Otter Creek Mine in Montana, and 1/3 of the Tongue River Railroad, the spur from the main BNSF line to reach their mine. Its partner in the TRRR is BNSF, the rail carrier who would actually move the coal from the mine to the terminal. BNSF owns the tracks until they reach the new improved SR 432 rail upgrades at the Longview Industrial Area paid for by Cowlitz County and the State of Washington.

Arch Coal’s proposed projects —the mine, the rail, and the terminal — have permits pending with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, US Surface Transportation Board, Cowlitz County, Wash. Dept. of Ecology, Wash. Dept. of Transportation, and, of course, the Corps. The argument that the terminal and rail proposals from Millennium to the mine are “stand alone,” “unrelated,” and “not a link or component of any linear or corridor project” completely breaks down in that context.

The Corps maintains it only scopes projects together when they are in the same watershed, but that is an arbitrary limiter they have placed on permit reviews that has no basis in jurisprudence. What the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has said is that a federal agency may not conduct piecemeal EIS’s when it realizes that proposals are part of the same plan. It does not take much imagination to realize the Otter Creek Mine and Millennium are part of the same plan to export PRB coal to China.

Columbia River Proposals

Further, the Columbia River — presumably a single watershed — has multiple proposals which would add significantly to annual vessel traffic if approved:

• Oregon LNG: an 86-mile pipeline would transfer Canadian liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the existing pipeline to a proposed new terminal in Warrenton, OR, for processing and re-export to the Pacific Rim via 125 LNG carriers;

• Millennium Bulk Logistics: a coal terminal would export 44 mmta coal via at least 850 Panamax bulker vessels;

• Pacific Transloading, Port of Morrow: an Ambre-owned rail-to-barge facility would transfer eight mmta coal from the PRB bound for a shipping terminal at Port Westward via 624 barge tows (typically one tug pushing four plus barges lashed together);

• Port Westward Marine Project: the coal shipping terminal also proposed by Millennium would receive the barged eight mmta coal, store it, and ship via 156 Panamax bulkers;

• Tesoro-Savage CBR (crude-by-rail) terminal, Vancouver: a 360,000 barrel-per-year crude terminal would store crude received by rail and ship via some combination of tankers and barges (each with their own tug), requiring 386 tankers if all by that mode, 1,546 barges if all by that mode;

• Global Partners CBR terminal, Port Westward Industrial Park: a 28,600 barrel-per-year crude terminal would ship via some combination of tanker (31) and articulated tug-barge (123); and

• In addition, some number of “bunker barges” will be added to river traffic in order to fuel vessels requiring it which call at piers with no fueling capability. One barge fuels roughly two large vessels.

The total number of commercial vessel calls at ports on the Columbia River in 2012 was 1,422 according to the engineers conducting the George Washington University VTRA. That more than doubles if all these proposals were built, because assuming only transport by the largest possible bulkers and tankers possible, new vessels added on the river would be 1,006 coal bulkers, 417 crude tankers, 125 LNG carriers, and 624 coal barge tows. All the proponents say they can be on line within two to five years. That’s about how long it would take to train all the new river pilots required to move the additional ships. The risks associated with the increased traffic and number of newly-trained pilots is a significant impact requiring study.

Avoiding Unimak Pass at All Costs

The vessel traffic risk assessment the federal government (the Corps) may hope to avoid by conducting piecemeal EIS’s is that which is required for the Unimak Pass in the Aleutians. The pass is where all the additional vessels bound for the Pacific Rim will meet when they leave the Puget Sound, Columbia River, and Grays Harbor. They will join all the other vessels from the Pacific Coast of North America on the Great Circle Route, heading to that archipelago — most through the Unimak Pass. It is where the U.S. Coast Guard is presently assessing its spill response capability related to current traffic levels.

While it is theoretically possible the Corps will conduct a vessel traffic risk assessment for the Columbia River, it is highly unlikely they will look at the proposed terminals there programmatically. Eventually the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may rap the Corps and even possibly the Surface Transportation Board on the knuckles, and complain to the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) about a lack of guidance and coordination, but until then, the federal government appears poised to refuse to conduct a cumulative rail study until forced to by the courts, assuming the proponents are still around. Already half the original six coal terminal proposals have evaporated as global market conditions shifted and Chinese demand for US coal cooled. It is possible the same could happen to crude terminal proposals if folks in North Dakota were to do the math and measure what happens to water tables with unlimited fracking.

If permit delays, market trends, state action, and judicial decisions stem the relentless flow of fossil fuel proposals in this region, it means the federal government can continue to avoid developing a national energy policy and no one in D.C. is to blame, which is no small issue given how much political skin is in this game. But when legislative bodies passed the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA,) they talked about doing more than avoiding issues until they hopefully go away. There was a time not so long ago when Congress and the Washington legislature didn’t consider it trite to talk about acting as trustees of the earth for future generations. They weren’t even embarrassed when they codified that notion. It is up to the public to remind them stewardship is not a matter of convenience; a notion to be set aside when fiscally inconvenient.

A Vote for the Future Depends On

For a majority of the sitting county council in Whatcom County, property rights trump government regulation including environmental laws. It won’t matter what SEPA says when the council votes on whether to grant permits to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal if ideology rather than the law governs the determination of four of those voting. The courts show tremendous deference to decision makers in reviewing permit applications made under NEPA and SEPA. The standard of review in the federal courts is, “NEPA merely prohibits uninformed — rather than unwise — agency action.” That is worse than a low bar. It is virtually no bar. Therefore, to ensure appropriate permit determinations, Whatcom County citizens must vote this fall as though the future depends on it. There are four seats at issue, and four votes will determine the fate of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

Counting the Drops in a Fossil Fuel Tsunami graphic

Terminal and Refinery Proposed Locations


Wash. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its Draft State Rail Plan on September 30. See DOT did the math and with roughly 130 mmta of agricultural and other freight on the rails, and the lines at over 70 percent capacity, they express concern about Washington products’ future ability to reach ports if a major coal terminal comes on line, given the crude coming by rail (current CBR proposals total 53 mmta). They express concern the railroads will use rate manipulation when demand exceeds capacity, and some Washington freight will have to default to the highways. DOT calls for regional coordination with Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, which supports the notion the Federal Railroad Administration should be co-lead with the Corps on EISs for proposed coal and crude terminals, and conduct a programmatic EIS of rail traffic.


1. 1991, Environmental Quality: The Twenty-first Annual Report of the Council on Environmental QualityTogether with the President’s Message to Congress,p.4, published by the Executive Office of the Pres., Council on Environmental Quality, Washington, D.C., located online 9/10/13, at;view=1up;seq=3.
2. 42 USC § 4331(b)(1); Rev. Code Wash. § 43.21C.020(2)(a).
3. Their Memorandum is online at
4. US Army Corps of Engineers Memorandum for the Record: US Army Corps of Engineers Scope of Analysis and Extent of Impact Evaluation for National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Impact Statement, sec. 4(a), July 3, 2013.
5. 33 Code Fed. Reg. § 325.3(c).
6. Ships from Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert have direct access to the ocean and don’t enter Puget Sound. Those vessels do, of course, meet all other traffic along the Great Circle Route bound for the Pacific Rim.
7. The SR 432 plan would replace an aged rail bridge, upgrade and add rail lines from the main line to riverfront industrial property, and realign and/or upgrade roads. Longview, with assistance of the State of Washington, will be the cost of these infrastructure upgrades.

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