Friday, May 2, 2014

Oil spills and exploding trains: is this Washington's future?

View of Haro Strait from San Juan Island.  Lainey Piland photo

There is an ominous rainbow sheen on the calm surface of the water.  Thick globs of coagulated brown liquid ride the waves onto the beach, forming a layer of suffocating clots on the rocky shoreline.  Fish float belly-up in the water.  Shorebirds attempt to flap their heavy, sodden wings to escape from the deadly oil that coats their feathers.  Where is this nightmarish scene?  The Gulf of Mexico? Prince William Sound? Some far-flung country on another continent?  What if someone told you that this could be our own Puget Sound?

While our attention has been diverted by news stories of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, bursting tar sands pipelines in Mayflower, Arkansas, and exploding crude oil tanker trains and spills in Lynchburg, Virginia, North Dakota, and Quebec (to name a few), the insidious threat of fossil fuel transport has quietly been ramping up right here in Washington.

The Seattle Times recently published a front-page article exposing the threat of growing oil traffic in the Puget Sound area. The article, written by Craig Welch, is entitled "Surging oil traffic puts region at risk," and begins with an ominous warning:
"Efforts to transform the Northwest into a fossil-fuel hub for North Dakota’s crude, Alberta’s oil sands and coal from the Rocky Mountains mean the risks of major spills and explosions in and around Washington state are rising and poised to skyrocket."
Well, isn't that nice.

The article notes that oil tanker ship traffic through the northern part of Puget Sound would increase significantly if a tar sands pipeline expansion through Vancouver B.C. is approved.  This leads to rising potential for catastrophic spills of heavy tar sands oil, the cleanup requirements of which are not completely understood at this time. (If you've been following the movement fighting against expansion of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in the midwest, take note - that could very soon be our own fight here in the Pacific Northwest). Tanker traffic, and the risk of subsequent collisions and spills, would also increase with the approval of several currently pending coal plant export terminals in the northern Sound. Our precious salmon and already-endangered orca whale populations would be further threatened if any of these projects go through. 

Oil tanker on the horizon on Haro Strait.  Lainey Piland photo

The article also explains that oil train traffic through our region has already risen tremendously in recent years, and stands to expand even more with several oil train permits currently pending.  Working their way from North Dakota to refineries in northern Puget Sound and along the Columbia River, these trains pose a significant risk to human life and our environment.  Just take a look at the news story regarding the oil train derailment and explosion in Lynchburg that happened just days ago.  Do we want that to happen in one of our towns?  Do we want that oil to be spilled into Puget Sound or the Columbia River?  The consequences and potential loss of life would be devastating.

Take a look at this informative graphic from the article, depicting the growing oil traffic threat in graphs, maps, and numbers.

So what can we do? Oil spills and tanker explosions are unacceptable anywhere, but many of us in the Pacific Northwest (myself included) never realized that our region was so at risk of experiencing these disasters. This danger underscores the need for our society to get off fossil fuels like coal and oil and transition to clean renewable energy such as wind and solar as soon as possible. Fossil fuels are not safe to extract or transport, and they are not safe to burn and release into our atmosphere, either. 

Sadly, although the transition away from fossil fuels is indeed in progress, it certainly will not happen overnight, and not soon enough to protect our beautiful Washington or the rest of the country from potential spills. For the time being, it is important to stay on top of this issue, and take every opportunity to speak out against expansion of tar sands pipelines, coal export terminals, and oil train traffic.

Let's just put things in perspective for a moment and take a look at our two potential futures: one based on fossil fuels, and one based on clean renewable energy...

Here is an oil spill:

By US Gov NOAA (US Gov NOAA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I'm going to show you what a solar spill looks like... take a deep breath and prepare yourself...

Lainey Piland photo
Oh, the horror!!!

An oil spill is called a disaster.  A solar spill is called a nice day.  Fossil fuels or safe, clean, renewable energy: which would we rather have? It's up to all of us to keep on top of the issue of increasing fossil fuel transport in our region, and to stand up and protect our neighbors - human and wildlife - as well as this beautiful place that inspires and sustains us. The place we call home. Let's do our best to make sure that Puget Sound does not become the next disaster.  The next Prince William Sound or Gulf of Mexico.

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