Northwest Environmental Defense Center

Northwest Defense is the Northwest Environmental Defense Center's blog (and newsletter). Learn about NEDC's latest work, current issues related to air and water quality, and conservation measures in the Pacific Northwest.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Global Partners and the Great Deception

By Marla Nelson, Staff Attorney

If you drive along Highway 30 you can’t help but notice when a unit train carrying crude oil barrels past.  The community of Rainier certainly can’t help but notice as the crude oil trains slice through their downtown, bisecting and cutting off the Cornerstone Cafe on one side of East A Street from Hometown Pizza on the other.  And of course the neighbors of the crude oil transloading facility located at Port Westward in Clatskanie, Oregon notice the activity: they hear every train as it approaches the facility and every broadcast made from the facility’s announcement system.  Cascade Kelly Holdings and its owner, Global Partners LP (Global), had quietly transformed a former ethanol production facility into a terminal for transloading millions of gallons of highly explosive Bakken crude oil.

The Clatskanie crude oil terminal is right next to the small family farm of one of NEDC’s members, with Mount St. Helen’s in the distance

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) did not notice and certainly made no attempt to regulate the quantity of trains or large volume of crude oil passing through the state until long after Global had received and transloaded hundreds of thousands of barrels at the terminal.  DEQ responded by issuing a commensurately minor civil penalty given the economic benefit Global enjoyed while violating the law, but stopped short of ordering Global to discontinue operations prior to obtaining lawful permit coverage.

NEDC first began researching the crude oil transloading facility at Port Westward in response to DEQ’s public notice that proposed a new standard air contaminant discharge permit for Global’s operations.  Standard air permits are regularly issued to industries throughout Oregon that will emit pollutants below minimum thresholds.  NEDC soon discovered, however, a complex timeline of events that appeared to demonstrate Global’s efforts to skirt more stringent legal requirements in the name of profits, while placing Oregon’s public health and air quality at risk.

What is the big deal?

Crude oil transloading operations are a source of air pollutants.  Emissions occur when crude oil is loaded, stored, and transported.  Crude oil is a volatile organic liquid.  During storage, light hydrocarbons dissolved in the crude oil vaporize or “flash out” and collect in the space between the liquid and roof of the tank or rail car.  As the liquid levels fluctuate, the vapors vent to the atmosphere, are flared, or are recovered by vapor recovery units.  The vapors include methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), natural gas liquids, hazardous air pollutants like benzene, and some inert gases.  Aside from being harmful in their own right, VOCs react with nitrogen oxides and oxygen in the presence of sunlight to form ozone.  Ground level ozone is a prime ingredient of smog and is linked to respiratory health problems.

Safety is a main concern.  Domestic crude oil production has seen a boom in recent years as a result of increased fracking and greater oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken formation.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. crude oil production will go from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 8.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2014.  Existing pipelines lack capacity to transport this volume of crude oil to coastal refineries.  Hence the subsequent boom in transporting crude oil by rail.

The transport of crude oil by rail simply is not safe.  On July 6, 2013, 73 rail cars carrying crude oil derailed and set off a series of explosions in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that resulted in 47 deaths.  Since that disaster there have been numerous accidents involving crude oil trains within the United States.  Thankfully, many of these incidents did not take place in urban areas where lives would have been threatened.  

For facilities like the Clatskanie oil terminal, the risk of an oil spill on land or water is also a major concern.  Federal regulators have been slow to demand safety assurances from the oil and rail industry.  The risks of transporting crude oil by rail and marine vessel remain.

Confounding the safety issues, Oregon does not have a state environmental policy act.  Unlike the state statutes in Washington and California that promote informed decision making, Oregon does not require a project proponent to consider the environmental impacts of a proposal.  Instead, the state relies on the various permits to control the impacts of a project.  This includes air and water quality permits, as well as land use approvals.  Yet none of these permits allow for a big-picture review of a project.  Each permit is issued based on a specific and discrete scope of review, depending on the jurisdiction of the state agency.  As a result, public comments are limited to the permit at hand.  The public and the agency issuing the permit never get the chance to make a fully informed decision about whether to go forward with a project.

Global Partners ignored the limited environmental regulatory process in Oregon by operating without the necessary air permit.  Even after DEQ directed Global to apply for a new air permit, the facility continued operating without it.  In 2013, Global received more than 300 million gallons of oil at the Clatskanie oil terminal without the proper air quality permit. Far from maintaining a level playing field for the industry, Global has flouted state and federal laws meant to protect Oregon’s communities and the environment from air pollution.

What is NEDC doing about it?

On July 3rd, 2014, NEDC joined the Center for Biological Diversity and Neighbors for Clean Air as co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to require Global’s crude oil transloading terminal to comply with the Clean Air Act.  Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on our behalf.  The lawsuit charges Cascade Kelly Holdings and Global with trying to skirt Clean Air Act protections and avoid strict federal permit requirements when it converted the bankrupt ethanol facility along the Columbia River into a high-volume shipping terminal for extremely volatile crude oil.

DEQ issued a standard air contaminant discharge permit to Global on August 19, 2014.  On October 17, 2014, NEDC and several other environmental groups filed a petition asking DEQ to reconsider that decision.  The appeal explained how DEQ overlooked huge air pollution emissions associated with Global’s operations and thereby allowed the facility to avoid federal review and restrictions on dangerous air pollutants. On December 11, 2014, DEQ denied the petition for reconsideration.

2014 Breakdown of Big Oil in Oregon:

Weekly capacity for the number of trains transporting 1,000,000 gallons or more of Bakken crude oil in Oregon: 51

Number of Oregon counties through which trains transporting 1,000,000 gallons or more of Bakken crude oil travel: 10

Hazardous ingredients in rail cars carrying Bakken crude: at least 3 (petroleum crude oil, benzene, hydrogen sulfide)

Gallons of crude oil Global received into storage without the proper air permit: over 500,000,000

Gallons of crude oil authorized to be stored and loaded annually at Global’s crude oil terminal under the standard air contaminant discharge permit issued by DEQ in August, 2014: 1,839,600,000


Sept. 30, 2014 Letter from BNSF Railway to Oregon State Education Resource Center
June 5, 2014 Letter from Portland & Western Railroad to Oregon State Education Resource Center
June 13, 2014 Letter from BNSF to Oregon State Education Resource Center
Columbia Pacific records of crude oil received into storage, recorded upon each receipt 2012-2014
Oregon DEQ Standard Air Contaminant Discharge Permit Review Report, Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, Permit No. 05-0023-ST-01

Want more resources?

The Center for Biological Diversity's Jared Margolis explains why proposed federal and state regulations miss the mark for addressing safety risks of crude oil unit trains in this Oregonian guest opinion.

Sightline Institute's blog, Sightline Daily, has a species series on The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails.

Oil Change International is a research, communication, and advocacy organization focused on exposing the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitating the coming transition towards clean energy.

ForestEthics works to oppose new crude by rail proposals that threaten our communities, watersheds, and climate.

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