SEATTLE — Democrats and Republicans blamed each other after the legislative session ended last week with little agreement on how to deal with increasing numbers of oil trains entering Washington state.
Several measures to address oil shipments by rail died as lawmakers adjourned the 60-day session, including a resolution calling for tougher federal standards for tank cars and a bill aimed at ensuring that state laws on oil spill response cover oil from Canadian tar sands.
A bill that would charge a 5-cent per barrel tax on crude oil arriving in the state by rail also died. To help pay for oil spill response and prevention, the state currently collects the tax on crude oil or petroleum products coming into the state from a marine vessel or barge.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the barrel tax on oil-by-rail could have passed on a straight-issue vote, but Democrats wanted to roll too many amendments into it.
"They wanted to make it very political," Ericksen said. "We lost the common sense legislation."
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, whose party is in the minority in the chamber shot back that the Majority Coalition Caucus controlled predominantly by Republicans was to blame because it had control of the gavel. "We never got to vote on it," Ranker said. "If we had the gavel, it would have come to the floor."
Ranker said he planned to offer amendments to Senate Bill 6567 to include reporting requirements for oil transport and other provisions because the public must have information about when, where and how often oil-laden rail cars move through communities.
The debate in Olympia came in the wake of a string of accidents involving crude oil train derailments. Last July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Oil trains also have exploded and burned in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick in recent months.
Three terminals in the Northwest are already receiving crude oil by trains that run through Washington. Other facilities are proposed at the ports of Grays Harbor and Vancouver, and at refineries. The largest is a $110 million project by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. at the Port of Vancouver to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The federal government regulates interstate railroad commerce. But state lawmakers and others said changes are happening so fast that they want to be prepared as more trains cut through heavily populated cities.
From the start of the short session, Democrats and Republicans were at odds over how best to do that. They offered competing bills in the Democratic-controlled House and in the Senate, with its GOP majority.
House Bill 2347, sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, passed the House, but died in the Senate when Ericksen didn't give it a hearing in his committee.
The bill required the Department of Ecology to collect information about when, how much and where oil shipments came from, as well as decide whether tug escorts were needed for oil tankers in Grays Harbor and on the Columbia River. The oil industry argued against disclosing the information, saying it was confidential and proprietary, while environmental groups said communities needed to know the potential risks posed by the shipments.
Ericksen, who chairs the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, offered up his own competing bill, which called for a study and grants to emergency responders to assist with oil spill response. Senate Bill 6524 also failed to advance.
In the final weeks of the session Democrats and Republicans met to try to reach an agreement on new oil-by-rail bills but failed to do so.
In the end, budget writers included $300,000 for a study in the supplemental budget that passed last week. The money is set aside for the Department of Ecology to analyze statewide risks, gaps and options for increasing public safety and improving oil spill response and preparedness. A final report is due March 1 of next year.