Corps’ BP Cherry Point limit no limit at all, environmental groups say


Environmental groups are unhappy with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ January 23 modification to its 1996 permit that limits the volume of crude oil BP can handle at its Cherry Point facility. They say the ceiling would allow the oil company to double its shipping capacity.

The Corps will limit BP’s capacity to 191 million barrels per year. This limit will be enforced through requiring annual vessel call and crude oil volume reports. However, according to BP’s website, the Cherry Point terminal can process 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day, or slightly more than 91 million barrels per year.

Friends of the San Juans marine protection and policy director Lovel Pratt said in a joint February 1 press release that the decision is nonsensical.

“The Corps’ ‘limit’ on the volume of crude oil that BP can receive at its terminal is nonsensical and unconscionable,” Pratt said. “This ‘limit’ is a license to more than double the volume of crude oil that’s currently processed at BP.”

In 1996, the Corps approved a permit to add a north wing to the already operational south wing of the Cherry Point dock, originally built for ARCO in 1971. BP purchased ARCO in 2000, and construction on the north wing finished in 2001. Environmental groups expected shipping traffic to increase if the north wing was deemed usable, so they filed suit, asking for an environment impact statement (EIS). 

The EIS, detailing the incremental environmental risk of operating the north wing of the Cherry Point terminal, was released August 12, 2022, and the Corps awaited consultations with local tribes and the Department of Justice before coming to a decision to modify the permit on January 23.

BP spokesperson Christina Audisho told The Northern Light in an email that BP is pleased the Corps has reached a decision. 

“A decision on this matter provides regulatory certainty and allows us to consider projects that will serve our state’s future energy needs as we transition to a lower carbon economy,” Audisho wrote. “We look forward to continuing safe operations at the dock as we comply with requirements of the permit.”

A BP spokesperson did not respond to questions regarding its current shipping capacity and whether it would increase its shipments as the modified permit allows by press time.

The Corps decision to modify the permit is supposed to bring it into compliance with the Magnuson Amendment, which prohibits federal agencies from granting permits that may result in an increase in crude oil beyond what a facility is capable of handling. The benchmark was set in October 1977 at 191 million barrels per year and does not include oil to be refined for consumption in Washington. But, at the time, the refinery could only process 36.5 million barrels per year, according to the press release.

“The law is clear: Federal permits cannot allow more crude oil in Puget Sound. This decision makes a mockery of that standard,” said Jan Hasselman, senior attorney at Earthjustice on behalf of the plaintiff organizations, in the statement.

Earthjustice is a nonprofit public interest organization headquartered in San Francisco. Friends of the San Juans is an environmental advocacy nonprofit based in Friday Harbor.

The Corps had refused to let BP use its north wing dock unless authorized.

Friends of the Earth oceans and vessels program director Marcie Keever said she was pleased the Corps refused to let BP use the north wing terminal but was disappointed that it did not set a lower handling cap and how long the decision took.

“It’s a sad day when it takes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 17 years after being sued to exercise its basic public responsibilities and then to use its authority to eviscerate the late senator Magnuson’s legislative legacy,” Keever said in a statement.

According to the February 1 press release, the number of crude oil tankers at the Cherry Point terminal increased by 40 percent from 1998 to 2007. The refinery’s crude oil capacity increased by 60 percent, from 100,000 barrels per day to 250,000, from 1971 to 2022.

Evergreen Islands spokesperson Tom Glade said vessel traffic poses three threats to the orcas’ existence: Vessel noise, collisions and oil spills.

“We, the human residents of Puget Sound, currently have an opportunity to take steps towards preventing the Southern Resident Killer Whales from annihilation – or, to our dishonor, letting this opportunity, to improve the orcas’ habitat by reducing the vessel traffic through the Salish Sea, slip through our fingers,” Glade said.

Evergreen Islands is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the saltwater islands of Skagit County, and Friends of the Earth is a nongovernmental environmental organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.


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