Trains full of North Dakota oil heading to PNW

LONGVIEW, Wash. — Trains full of North Dakota crude oil are chugging toward the Pacific Northwest.

Oil is bringing jobs and business opportunities to the Lower Columbia region but it also is raising fears that the river will become a fossil fuel highway, The Daily News of Longview reported in Sunday’s newspaper.

Last year, oil cars began leaving the Bakken shale region centered near Williston, N.D., en route 1,200 miles to Columbia County to be unloaded at Port Westward near Clatskanie.

Earlier this year, Tesoro proposed to build a $100 million terminal at the Port of Vancouver that would create 80 jobs. And similar proposals are being considered in Tacoma and Grays Harbor County. The oil would be loaded onto barges and sent to West Coast refineries.

While no plans to store or refine oil have emerged in Cowlitz County, area business leaders say they are keeping an eye out for clients who want to haul oil by train to the West Coast.

“We will develop those opportunities based on what is best for port growth and future job growth,” Lauri Nelson-Cooley, the Port of Longview’s manager of business development, wrote in an email last week.

Environmentalists — already spending time and money opposing proposed coal export docks in the Pacific Northwest — say they worry about oil polluting the Columbia River. One major spill could cost millions of dollars to clean up and damage drinking water and salmon habitats, they say.

“We’re pretty concerned that you’re creating a mobile pipeline down the Columbia River carrying this dirty fuel,” Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia RiverKeeper, said last week.

While pipelines are the cheapest way to transport oil, the North Dakota fracking boom has flooded pipeline capacity. Building more pipelines is expensive and involves hefty regulatory burdens, according to the U.S. Energy Administration.

So oil companies have turned to the rails.

Now, five years after the first rail oil shipments left North Dakota, about three-quarters of the region’s oil is hauled in mile-and-a-half-long trains headed to East, West and Gulf coasts, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

Analysts are divided on how long rail shipments of oil will continue to grow, which could make terminal investors nervous, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst of New Jersey-based Oil Price Information Service.

“You’re taking a risk,” Kloza said.

Nevertheless, oil companies are testing the West Coast markets.

In November, Longview contractor JH Kelly began storing crude oil at its ethanol plant in Port Westward near Clatskanie.

The oil from the Clatskanie plant — which employs 50 — is unloaded onto barges and sent to West Coast refineries in California and Anacortes, Wash.

While the Port of Longview has no immediate plans to pursue an oil terminal, rail access, barge access and land is available. Port officials are studying the best use for their vacant 275-acre Barlow Point property and are planning to redevelop a shuttered grain elevator.