Should the Salish Sea Become a petrochemical superhighway?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Washington State’s five refineries supply most of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel used in the Pacific Northwest. And you may not know it, but these refineries have been piecemealing together expansion projects to start exporting crude oil and petrochemicals through the Salish Sea. These expansion projects are steadily increasing the risk of spills and carbon pollution, while threatening to send more jobs overseas.

Right now, all five of those refineries have a problem: We’re using less of the stuff they’ve been producing. And we’re going to use even less in the future.

Thanks to fuel-efficient cars, electric vehicles, mass transit upgrades, and pedestrian-centered cities, the Pacific Northwest is headed in the right direction. Policy proposals are moving toward even bigger steps to cut our carbon footprint, like putting a price on climate pollution and implementing new fuel standards.

These changes are a good thing—they’re steps we’ve needed for a long time. It means cleaner air and water, less traffic, lower carbon pollution, and a legacy we can be proud to pass on to our grandkids.

But for Big Oil, it’s a big problem. Their market is shrinking. And it’s driving changes in the way industry plans to do business in the future.

How are we seeing these piecemealed expansion projects coming together? In 2015, the industry successfully lobbied Congress to lift the ban on crude oil exports. In the first half of 2017, the Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) Refinery near Anacortes shipped more than one million barrels of crude oil out of the state. The BP Refinery at Cherry Point is exploring new ways to refine diesel using rendered animal products. And now, Andeavor is seeking permits to manufacture and export xylenes, petrochemicals used in making plastics.

Shifting to xylene production means a significant increase in toxic chemicals coming in by ship and train, and more tankers headed for Asia. This is the future Big Oil is aiming for.

As refineries explore options to ship out new products or export crude oil, the fragile Salish Sea faces an even greater likelihood of spills and accidents—threats that could send our already struggling Southern Resident killer whales over the brink to extinction. These types of projects also bring huge increases in carbon emissions—right as our state is pushing to decrease pollution in other sectors. And shipping unrefined products overseas costs local refinery jobs.

I won’t argue that refineries shouldn’t be allowed to change the types of products they handle. But our state must be more thoughtful about permitting the kinds of industrial changes we want to see. And our leaders should be clear that there are some risks to our communities, our climate, and our waterways we just aren’t willing to accept.

Decisions about projects like Andeavor’s should be made with an eye on environmental impacts and economic resilience, as well as consideration for what these changes mean for workers and contractors.

Good public policy means thinking ahead, setting up smart rules, applying them consistently and making sure everyone knows what to expect. Thoughtful planning will give people and businesses time to react as our state, nation and the world transition to a lower carbon future.

Unfortunately, right now we’re getting piecemeal proposals, without a view of the big picture. So how do we do better?

• Most immediately, you can speak out at a public hearing on Nov. 2 and call on Skagit County to deny Andeavor’s project permits. Shipping petrochemicals to Asia isn’t the future we want for our community. This is the only hearing on these permits—and this is a precedent-setting project. Big Oil should not be allowed to skirt responsibility by shifting their climate pollution to other countries, while putting the Salish Sea at a greater risk of spills. This project is a step in the wrong direction.

• Tell your local government officials to block projects to export crude oil and fracked natural gas through our communities. Impacted cities and counties can, and must, take action in the face of these threats. Whatcom County has already taken a step in the right direction through their recent moratorium on unrefined fossil fuel export projects. Tacoma seems likely to follow. Skagit County should do the same.

• We need better oversight of refinery expansions. Part of the problem with Andeavor’s project is that Skagit County is largely on its own to review this complex project. These refineries are big facilities with regional impacts, and they require expertise most counties can’t properly manage. State agencies should have been involved from the beginning.   

With real forward thinking, our local and state leaders can continue to rapidly reduce pollution and prevent toxic spills, while protecting local jobs and supporting a just, equitable transition to a low carbon future. Because that’s the future worth fighting for.

Alex Ramel is field director for the Extreme Oil Campaign at

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