BP refinery calls for increase in oil shipments
If you thought the airport issue was divisive for voters in Blaine, get ready to be at ground zero for the next several years as the oil industry and the marine environmental community square off again over expanding local refineries and the increased tanker traffic that will bring.
In a recent development that brings this national debate very close to home, BP president Ross Pillari threatened last week in senate testimony to cut production ten percent at the BP Cherry Point Refinery unless laws restricting their ability to increase production are changed. If it is changed Pillari said production then might be expanded. This is the first official mention by BP of any expansion plans at Cherry Point.
At the heart of the issue are the limitations on crude oil transport and refining in the Puget Sound basin set by Senator Warren Magnuson’s amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act funding re-authorization bill of 1977.
BP lost a lawsuit last year over whether or not a loading platform the company added to their main pier at Cherry Point violates the Magnuson amendment. It was built with what have turned out to be inadequate permits, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so it’s in violation of federal law. After losing in court last year BP wants to change the law. They’re supported by the current administration and by the majority party in both houses of congress, led on this issue by Alaskan senator Ted Stevens.
Fred Felleman, Northwest director for a group called Ocean Advocates, filed the original lawsuit five years ago. He’s supported by all of the congressmen from western Washington, including Republican Dave Reichert of Auburn, and both Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Cantwell’s likely Republican opponent in her re-election bid, Republican Mike McTavish, is also on her side in this issue. He was quoted last week in the Seattle Times as saying to Stevens that a proposal to increase tanker traffic on Puget Sound “was a non-starter in our part of the world.”
Magnuson managed to slip his amendment through congress in two days literally under the noses of the oil industry, maritime unions and then Governor Dixie Lee Ray, who at the time was working hard to establish a major supertanker port and pipeline complex at Cherry Point that was intended to send refined oil products all over the country. Magnuson’s amendment ended the debate by not allowing anything like that in Washington waters east of Port Angeles.
Reaction was strong from Magnuson’s opponents, but as time passed Magnuson was generally applauded by the public, especially in light of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 that spread 11 million gallons of oil over an area more than five times the size of the entire Puget Sound basin.
BP, seeing a need for increased capacity, applied for an Army Corps of Engineers permit in 1992 to expand its pier at Cherry Point by adding a second loading platform. It had been approved when the refinery was originally built in 1971 (six years before Magnuson) but was never completed. The new request was approved and then extended by the Corps, who determined that BP did not need an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) nor did their plan violate the Magnuson amendment because BP said they did not intend to use the new platform to increase their capacity to offload crude oil.
Ocean Advocates disagreed with the Army Corps ruling on BP’s need for a permit and eventually sued in November of 2000. They lost in federal district court but then won on appeal in the Ninth Circuit last year. The judges, in remanding the case back to the lower court, told the Corps to prepare an EIS in view of the probable increases in tanker traffic it would generate and reevaluate the permit in light of possible Magnuson violations.
BP had finished installing the second platform in September of 2001 based on the earlier approvals that were being contested in response to an increasing market demand. “Right now,” said Kidd, “We have this refinery and one in Los Angeles for five western states, an area that is growing rapidly while seeing its ability to supply itself with oil products falling short by 75,000 barrels of gasoline and 50,000 barrels of jet fuel a day. We need to bring it in from somewhere else, which raises the price.”
To do that, and to increase the amount of crude they can deliver to Cherry Point, BP is building new Alaska class tankers 941 feet long, almost exactly the same size as the ill-fated Exxon Valdez that now plies the Atlantic as the “Sea River Mediterranean.” Any resemblance ends there, however, as these ships are all double-walled to meet federal requirements for all tankers by the year 2015. They also have completely redundant engine and propulsion systems and a number of other safeguards, such as diesel-electric power and internal filling and off-loading pipelines on board. “From 2001, when we built the second wing, we’ve transferred 840,000 gallons of crude a day and have spilled a total of four-tenths of a gallon,” Kidd said.
One thing that has caused environmentalists concern is the decline in the herring population around Cherry Point and on the Whatcom County shoreline. According to an on-going study being conducted by Greg Bargman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), spawning rates are off 95 percent in 32 years and the population may not survive. Between the 1970s and the late 1990s the survival rate for the fish who survived the first year and returned to spawn, declined from between 70 and 80 percent to between 20 and 30 percent.
No one is necessarily blaming the oil companies because the cause for the decline is unknown. But somehow the environmental health of the area appears compromised. “It’s ironic,” Kidd said, “because we have herring spawning on the piling underneath the new platform.”
In a final development, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed the southern resident population of killer whales on the endangered species list on Tuesday of last week. That has far reaching implications about what will and will not be allowed in local waters, and like Magnuson’s amendment may have once again ended the battle before it began.