How Northwest Communities Are Stopping Big Oil Projects

Last week, a Washington state energy panel voted unanimously to oppose what would be the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal.
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Communities throughout the Northwest, often led by Native American tribes, have been stopping one project after another.

Photo by Joel Rogers/Getty Images.

“This is more fun than I’ve ever had in my life,” Don Steinke told me when I called him last week. Steinke, a retired science teacher, is a leader in the fight to stop what would be the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal. Last week, the state agency in charge of reviewing the application voted unanimously to oppose the terminal—a vote that could spell the end of the project.

First proposed in 2013 by Vancouver Energy, the terminal would have been built along the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington; 360,000 barrels of oil a day were to be brought by rail and then loaded on ships for transport to West Coast refineries. But the project quickly ran into local opposition.

The power of local organizing to stop this project got my attention. The opposition is fueled both by local impacts on water and air, and by the fact that building new oil-transport infrastructure is a terrible idea at a time when we must phase out the use of fossil fuel if we are to avert climate catastrophe.

Communities throughout the Northwest, often led by Native American tribes, have been stopping one project after another.

Just last year, for example, what would have been the largest coal export terminal in the United States was cancelled in response to opposition from the Lummi Tribe, which holds treaty fishing rights to the nearby waters. The Otter Creek mine in southeast Montana was also canceled in the face of opposition from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and area ranchers. Early this year, Washington state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark rejected a lease for a coal export facility in Longview, Washington, along the Columbia River; a county hearing examiner later denied the plant shoreline permits. Also this year, plans for a large oil terminal on the Washington coast were set back by a state Supreme Court ruling. The proposed terminal, which was opposed by the Quinault Tribe, would have shipped 17.8 million barrels of oil a year.

Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute calls this opposition the “thin green line” separating tar sands oil, Powder River Basin coal, and Bakken fracked gas and oil from Asian markets. If these projects go through, Sightline estimates, they will release the carbon equivalent of five KXL pipelines.

How are these local groups able to succeed in the face of the power and money of huge energy corporations? What is it about place-based work that succeeds?

There are many answers to this question, and the leadership of Northwest tribes is among the most important. But I was intrigued by Steinke’s continued enthusiasm after years of mobilizing opposition to oil transport, and before that, to coal trains.

“I made a thousand friends!” Steinke told me. “I’m feeling overwhelmed with the blessing of knowing so many people will show up over and over again.”

“We cannot allow any further pollution to our river.”

And show up they did. On November 28, when the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council rejected the terminal, council chairwoman Roselyn Marcus noted the quarter million comments they’d received on the project, calling it “probably the longest process in the council’s history.”

Residents objected to the risk of fire, explosions, and water pollution associated with having thousands of oil-filled rail cars traveling through the Columbia Gorge and through their towns and cities. The Yakama Nation, a Native American tribe, noted their right to fish and practice cultural and religious traditions along the Columbia River, “including the area threatened by the proposed Tesoro-Savage [a joint venture of Vancouver Energy] project site,” Yakama chairman JoDe Goudy said in a statement. “We cannot allow any further pollution to our river.”

Others spoke of the terminal’s impact on the climate.

“This is on my watch,” Steinke told me. “I can’t sit idly by.”

After years of disappointment at U.S. government inaction on the climate crisis, Steinke had nearly given up. But then he learned of plans for new fossil fuel infrastructure in his own community.

“It may be too late,” he said. “But it might not be. I’m morally obligated to do everything I can to avert the worst.”

Steinke began by speaking at neighborhood meetings and submitting comments on the proposed terminal to the local newspaper’s website. He stood outside the library with a clipboard and a petition, and gradually built up an email list of 1,500 people; many showed up to testify and comment on the proposal.

“Show up, speak up, and make your case repeatedly.”

Another opponent of the terminal, Don Orange, owner of a local auto repair shop, organized dozens of small business owners to oppose the terminal before declaring his candidacy for the Port of Vancouver commission. His Republican opponent, insurance agent Kris Greene, who was running for office for the first time, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the companies backing the terminal—87 percent of his campaign contributions, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Although he had far less money to spend, Orange won the November election with 65 percent of the vote.

It’s up to Washington Governor Jay Inslee now to make the final decision.

Meanwhile, Steinke is thinking about his next moves. There are other proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects to be stopped. He wants to convince local school districts to use heat pumps, not natural gas, in school construction. And he wants the city of Vancouver to adopt a climate action plan as ambitious as Portland’s.

His advice for others who want to make a difference: “Show up, speak up, and make your case repeatedly. Without advocates, nothing happens. Elected officials don’t want to rock the boat, but if you rock it, they will be receptive.”

And, if Steinke’s experience is any indication, the deeper sense of community and commitment that results could be oxygen for local revolution.