Oil-By-Rail: ESSB 5579

On March 19, our neighbors came to Olympia to testify against ESSB 5579, a bill that aimed to improve safety in our communities by lowering the maximum vapor pressure for oil in rail cars. Phillips 66 and firms that work at Whatcom’s refineries testified against the bill and mobilized an email and phone call campaign to highlight the job and economic impacts the first draft of this bill could have had on Whatcom families. So first I want to say: I’ve heard you.

Our refineries are objectively some of the cleanest in the world. If production were reduced here, other facilities would pick up the demand. I am proud to call myself a lifelong environmentalist and I have every reason to believe that those other refineries would be less clean and less safe. Everyone loses in that scenario.

I’ve had the privilege to meet many of you who work at the refineries and I know safety is the most important part of all the work you do. Your co-workers, your facilities, and your products are constantly subjected to some level of risk, so a safety culture is vital.

At the same time, these trains move daily through our dense urban communities, rolling past schools and houses where families sleep, and these communities bear serious risk as well. I live in one of those communities, right alongside many of you.

When the bill came to the House, I pushed all parties to work toward a compromise that improves safety without unnecessarily threatening the families who rely on jobs at the refineries. I’m pleased to report that, after a lot of talk, that compromise was finally incorporated into the bill on Tuesday. The original bill would have lowered the vapor pressure limit for oil in rail cars to 9 psi across the boards. The compromise bill stipulates that this change will only happen if traffic increases significantly — if oil-by-rail traffic increases by more than 5% from the 2018 level, then we will lower the pressure limit to 9 psi to balance the increased risk from increased traffic.

When I’m not a legislator, I’m a mother and a professor and I encourage my energy policy students to seek jobs at the refineries. Why? Because understanding how our energy system works is essential to an equitable and cost-effective energy transition. The SB 5959 compromise takes us a step toward protecting everyone in Whatcom County and I’m proud of our community for having this conversation and coming up with a solution.

If you don’t work at the refineries, I’d encourage you to visit. You’ll see a lot of Priuses in the parking lot. BP recently stepped up to support a Senate bill that would cap carbon pollution in Washington State. Things are changing. I am committed to working with refinery workers, plant managers, local contractors, union leaders, tribal members, environmentalists and community leaders so that we can all be partners in a transition to clean, low-carbon, and renewable energy sources that works for everyone.