Guest Commentaries

Army Corps marches to the beat of BP’s drum

Public has until Oct. 12 to ask Corps to change its tune
August 31, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

By Tom Glade, Brent Lyles, Marcie Keever

While a lot of attention has been given to the potential for a threefold increase in oil tanker traffic if the Trans Mountain pipeline is expanded, most people are not aware of the ongoing legal challenge associated with the significant expansion of BP’s Cherry Point oil tanker refinery terminal near Blaine.

A recent oil spill resulting from the sinking of the fishing vessel Aleutian Isle in the San Juan Islands, which occurred within close proximity of a "super pod" of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, underscored the potential impact of even a relatively small spill of diesel in such a rich but vulnerable environment. However, the increased traffic of massive oil tankers carrying crude and refined products is a far greater risk of long-term environmental impacts throughout the Salish Sea. 

Recognizing the urgency to do everything that we can to prevent a catastrophic oil tanker spill, the Friends of the San Juans, Evergreen Islands and Friends of the Earth sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September 2021. The suit challenged the Corps’ failure to issue a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for its 1996 permit issued to BP. The Corps’ permit authorized the construction of a north wing to BP’s oil terminal which was completed in 2001. Yet the permit failed to seriously consider the disastrous environmental ramifications.

As a result of our legal challenge, the Corps finally published the FEIS this August — 17 years after the 2005 court decision directing it to do so! The court ruling also requires the Corps to determine whether its permit issued to BP should include additional environmental protections — particularly for oil spills. (see our op-ed in the July 20 issue for more background).

Alarmingly, the FEIS includes no additional oil spill measures despite the Corps permit enabling BP to double its tanker terminal berthing capacity. Notably, all the impacted species listed in the Corps’ 2014 Draft EIS have continued to decline. 

Our greatest concern is that, despite the court’s 2005 direction, the Corps has yet to restrict the number of crude oil tankers allowed to call on BP’s Cherry Point terminal. The Corps must consider capping tanker traffic to comply with the late Sen. Magnuson’s 1977 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (33 U.S.C. § 476) The Magnuson Amendment prohibits federal agencies from granting permits "which will or may result in any increase in the volume of crude oil capable of being handled at any such facility (measured as of Oct. 18, 1977), other than oil to be refined for consumption in the State of Washington." 

Consequentially, the Corps must determine if its BP permit will result in increased crude oil tanker traffic because adding a second wing to the terminal obviously increases BP’s ability to berth more tankers. BP has taken unmitigated advantage of this added capacity for over a decade. Based on the FEIS data, the number of oil tankers and barges transiting the San Juan Islands to and from the BP terminal increased by 13% on average from before the north wing became operational (1998–2000) to after (2001–14). In general, the maximum number of tanker transits increased from 606 in 2000 to 832 in 2007 — an increase of 226 oil tanker transits (27%) post construction. 

From 2008 to 2022, BP increased its daily refining capacity by 1.7 million gallons — from 209,000 to 250,000 bbl/day. Since its construction in 1972, the Cherry Point refinery has increased its capacity by 60%. Yet, the FEIS risk models assume that the refinery’s capacity will not increase through 2030.

The FEIS’s most recent data (2014–17) reveals that BP’s tanker traffic declined, coinciding with expansions to its pipeline and rail infrastructure. However, during the same period, refined product tanker transits increased by 6%. Also, the increases in both refinery and berthing capacity enable BP to increase crude oil tanker traffic whenever it’s more profitable to do so. 

The potential impacts to our endangered orcas accentuates the necessity for the Corps to restrict the number of tankers allowed to call on BP’s tanker terminal. Modifying BP’s permit to restrict future growth in crude oil tanker traffic is the only way the Corps can comply with the Magnuson Amendment. 

The public has until Oct. 12 to insist the Corps to stop marching to BP’s drum. We have waited far too long. The Corps has to finally decide whether to protect our endangered orcas and the public’s interests or to ensure BP’s profits — it has until Nov. 10.

Public comments on the Final EIS should be sent to: 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District 

4735 East Marginal Way South 

Seattle, WA 98134 

Attention: Daniel Krenz

Tom Glade is with Evergreen Islands; Brent Lyles with Friends of the San Juans; Marcie Keever with Friends of the Earth.

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