Oregon’s wide-open embrace of corporate campaign contributions has repercussions across a number of industries, and results in more lenient environmental laws than in neighboring West Coast states. That disparity is especially pronounced in the railroad industry, specifically regarding tank car shipments of hazardous crude oil to export facilities in and near Portland.
It’s an established fact that corporate interests gave more money per capita to winning Oregon legislative candidates than in any other state. The scope of the industry largess was detailed in a series of stories in The Oregonian last month.
Now, in reports from Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Oregonian, we learn that one company is ramping up shipments of heavy crude from Canadian tar sands to a terminal in Portland, but without notifying state environmental officials or emergency responders, who would be responsible for dealing with a spill or a fire. There is nothing illegal about this because Oregon law does not require such notification. In Washington, meanwhile, rail companies must provide 24-hour notice of oil shipments.
The company, Zenith Energy, greatly has increased its activity, from one marine shipment in 2017 to 10 in 2018. This year, it has filled five ships in the first three months.
Oregon has the weakest rules governing oil train shipments on the West Coast. Even after a Union Pacific oil train derailed and exploded near Mosier in the Columbia Gorge in 2016, Oregon lawmakers were unable to enact stronger safety rules.
Legislators managed to pass a ban on offshore drilling and fracking — neither of which is likely to happen here — but two bills that would have matched oil train rules already on the books in Washington died without a hearing this session — the fourth session in a row that considered new regulations but failed to enact any.
One bill that is still alive, House Bill 2209, would require railroads operating hazardous train routes to have oil spill contingency plans that are approved by the state Department of Environmental Quality. OPB reports the measure was written in collaboration with Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and other rail companies. This might have something to do with the fact that railroad campaign contributions average $3,542 per Oregon legislator, the sixth highest amount of any state in the country.
HB 2209 passed the House Committee On Veterans and Emergency Preparedness on Tuesday, and was referred to the Ways and Means Committee. It should not be allowed to die there, but it shouldn’t be the last word on oil trains, either.
Even if the bill becomes law, regulators in Oregon still won’t know in advance when oil trains are arriving or how much oil they carry. Lawmakers should summon the intestinal fortitude to get tough on oil shipments before the next accident, not after.