Renewed push for oil transport bills as oil trains spike

SEATTLE — Lawmakers are pushing competing bills to improve oil train safety, as a spike in volatile shipments of crude oil by rail poses new risks in Washington.

A Republican-backed bill heard in Olympia on Thursday shares some similarities with legislation requested by Gov. Jay Inslee and sponsored by Democrats.

But the measure lacks requirements for more disclosure of oil movement and the possibility of tug escorts for oil barges that are included in Inslee’s proposal. Those will likely be sticking points again this year.

“The most important thing is that we address the emerging issue of oil by rail,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, sponsor of Senate Bill 5057. He heads the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, which took testimony on his bill Thursday.

He said his bill doesn’t encompass marine and pipeline oil transport, since the state already has a robust system there. His measure calls for reviews of oil-spill response plans, state grants to local emergency responders and a symposium on oil spill and response.

Democrats say Inslee’s proposal has stronger marine protection and public disclosure.

“Sen. Ericksen’s bill is a good first step but there are some really crucial missing pieces,” said Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who is sponsoring a House bill.

The governor’s proposal requires advanced notice of oil transfers and that information about the volume of oil, type, route and origin be provided quarterly and posted on the Department of Ecology’s website. It also requires that railroads show they can afford to pay for oil spill cleanup and allows for new rules including tug escort requirements for tankers and vessels in state waters.

Last year, Farrell’s oil safety bill passed out of the House, but died when Ericksen didn’t hear it in his committee.

Ericksen said he would see how Thursday’s hearing on his bill goes “to make a determination if we need to hear the governor’s bill.”

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5087, said lawmakers butt heads last year but “time has helped bring people to the table.” Lawmakers agreed on a need for a state study, and that study set the stage for what the state should be doing, she added.

The study last month recommended more training for first responders, more railroad inspectors and ensuring that those who transport oil can pay for cleanup.

Both Democratic and Republican bills include revising the definition of oil to ensure that laws on oil spill response also cover oil from Canadian tar sands.

Both would collect a barrel tax when oil comes to the state by rail to pay for oil spill response. The tax is currently collected when oil arrives from a marine vessel or barge. The governor’s proposal also extends the tax to pipelines, and increases the tax to 10 cents per barrel, from 4 cents.

Johan Hellman with BNSF Railway was among those who spoke in favor of the bill. He noted that railroads make certain disclosures about oil transport under federal rules.

Others such as Sierra Club spoke against it, and urged lawmakers to do more to improve safety of oil moving over waters and to ensure taxpayers don’t foot the bill for oil spills.

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