Safe Fuels Initiative (2015 archive, some information may not be up to date)


Oil-by-rail shipments have dramatically increased in the last few years as a result of extreme extraction booms in the Bakken Shale and Alberta Tar Sands. Hazardous oil trains place an enormous burden of risk on our communities, economies, and environment.

Northwest Washington is being heavily targeted with piece-by-piece build-out of an oil pipeline on rails, transforming our region into a sacrifice-zone for unconventional fossil fuel transport to the Pacific.

RE Sources, in partnership with (formerly Forest Ethics) and the Stand Up to Oil coalition, are working to block new oil-train infrastructure in Skagit and Whatcom counties, and build public insistence for legislative action to regulate safety standards and halt dangerous shipments.

Deadly Crossings: A report on Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains

Oil trains, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate federal oversight of rail bridges threaten the safety of millions of Americans, our waterways, and the environment. Read Waterkeeper Alliance & ForestEthics report on the dangerous state of railways moving explosive fuels across the nation. 

Oil trains move toxic and extremely explosive oil thousands of miles across the United States, over our waterways and through our communities. Increases in oil train traffic and the inadequate oversight of U.S. railroad bridge safety could have severe consequences for the 25 million Americans living in the one-mile blast zone, as well as the watersheds and drinking water sources that these trains cross.
The dramatic 5,000% increase in oil train traffic since 2008 has raised the threat of catastrophic railroad accidents in the U.S. The federal government estimates the U.S. will see an average of 14 oil train accidents per year over the next 5 years. This year, the U.S. and Canada have experienced six major oil train derailments and explosions.
Overly broad federal law, lax regulations, dangerously inadequate inspections and oversight, and lack of authority compound the threat from oil trains. Local governments are prevented by law from regulating most aspects of railroads, while federal law leaves responsibility for safety inspections and maintenance to the rail bridge owners and does not even set minimum standards for bridge design or maintenance.
The Federal Railroad Administration, in reaction to public concern, is starting to recognize that railroad bridges are a serious issue. However, all the agency has done to address this growing concern is ask the railroad companies to be more transparent, a request that has been largely ignored.
TAKE ACTION NOW and join Waterkeeper Alliance in demanding that the federal government use its power to protect people, rather than cave to industry pressure. As a first step, the Federal Railroad Administration must ensure that no rail bridge be used for oil trains or other hazardous materials unless it has passed a rigorous, third-party safety inspection.

Selected Press Coverage of Oil Rail Proposals
Crude oil may be headed through Bellingham by rail – Bellingham Herald Blog, July 18 2012
BP taking next steps on rail project for crude oil – Bellingham Herald, November 30 2012
The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails – Sightline Institute Report, June 24 2013
What you can do about oil-by-rail in the Northwest – Sightline Daily, June 26 2013

Proposed rail-to-ship crude oil terminal biggest yet in region – KPLU, June 27 2013

Whatcom refineries gear up for crude oil via rail – Bellingham Herald, June 28 2013
3 dead in oil train derailment – Bellingham Herald, July 6 2013
40 still missing in deadly Canada rail crash, fire – Bellingham Herald, July 8 2013
Oil train explodes in Alabama – Sightline Daily, November 8 2013
Safety questions after ND train derailment – Seattle P-I, December 31 2013
Inslee: More must be done to improve oil train safety – Everett Herald, October 1 2014
Cost of oil trains in Grays Harbor–, Febuary 10 2015

Regulatory Decisions on Oil Rail Proposals
Shell Puget Sound Refinery

Skagit County SEPA MDNS – Issued April 24 2014

Phillips 66 Refinery
Whatcom County SEPA MDNS – Issued April 29 2013
BP Cherry Point
Whatcom County SEPA MDNS Part 1 – Issued October 18 2012
Whatcom County SEPA MDNS Part 2 – Issued October 18 2012

Whatcom County has issued a SEPA Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) for both the Phillips 66 and BP oil rail expansion projects. This means that the proposals to build necessary infrastructure at these refineries were determined to be non-significant (under state law) if they meet the mitigating requirements laid out by the County. Please review the documents above to learn more. We will post Part 2 of the BP MDNS once it is released in digital form by the County. 



Environmental Concerns
Oil unit trains at a recently constructed oil export facility in Anacortes, Washington. Photo by Paul Anderson.

Oil rail shipments present a number of potential environmental impacts on our communities. These proposals are likely to bring added traffic, the risk of oil spills and derailments, and the burning of oil is a major contributor to climate change. Here are some of the top concerns associated with oil rail shipments:

  • Construction impacts: At most refinery sites, oil rail shipments will require the construction of new rail infrastructure and potentially piers or wharves to accommodate new tanker traffic. The impacts of construction could disrupt wetlands, shorelines and other ecologically critical areas. Typically, wetland mitigation has resulted in a loss of ecosystem functionality, meaning that the wetlands lost to new rail infrastructure construction cannot be easily replaced, if they can be replaced at all.
  • Combined vessel traffic risks: Oil rail shipments are not happening in a vacuum. If they are pursued alongside proposals for tar sands pipelines, coal exports, and other potential sources of new vessel traffic, the impact on the marine environment will be extremely significant. In addition to dramatically increasing the risk of spills and accidents, added vessel traffic can interfere with wildlife migration patterns, introduce invasive aquatic species and threaten a number of important marine habitats in our region. Click here to view the BP vessel traffic risk study resulting from our 2000 NEPA lawsuit. 
  • Tar sands: Every oil by rail facility can potentially receive heavy tar sands oil from Alberta that is all but impossible to clean up in the event of a spill or explosion. Like Bakken oil, transporting tar sands by rail can mean explosions and leaks. Currently, all of the proposals assume that only light crude oil from the Bakken region will be received at the refineries, but place no restriction on other sources. If Shell is allowed to receive tar sands oil, agencies need to take a careful look at the risks of a spill on or near Puget Sound.
  • Vessel traffic risk and exports: Similar to the issue with tar sands, project documents are currently leaving any potential risk of exports or transshipment of the oil coming in by rail completely out of consideration. At the same time, the proposal offers no restriction on this potential risk. A spill on Puget Sound would be devastating, so it’s critical that the EIS examine and restrict the risk of increased oil transport over water.
  • Climate change: Downstream impact of adding more oil to the refinery should be considered — as well as the extension this project might represent in terms of continued use of fossil fuels. If we’re building new fossil fuel infrastructure like the oil by rail loop, it’s critical we understand the impact of the continued use of fossil fuel energy sources on our climate.
  • Worker health and safety: Both tar sands and Bakken oil sources present new risks to the safety of workers at the refinery. It’s important our local officials consider the potential safety and environmental impacts of operating a union facility to receive oil by rail compared to using non-union contractors. Currently, the proposal offers no requirement that the oil by rail offloading facility contract with better paid and better trained local union workers, such as those in USW Local 591.
  • Train traffic impacts: Similar to coal export proposals, adding train traffic to serve oil rail shipments means more traffic congestion, infrastructure costs, risk of derailment and air pollution. A derailment in Western Washington could cause serious problems for wildlife, people, communities and ecosystems for many years to come.

An oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, leveled four city blocks and killed 47 people. 


What Can You Do?

Because oil rail shipments do not substantially alter the operations of refinery facilities, the ability to block these shipments under state law are pretty limited. Despite these limitations, there is still a lot the average person can do in the short term:

  1. Contact local government and make your voice heard. Speak out to our regulatory agencies and make it known you want government policies to address the environmental and public safety concerns associated with oil transport by rail.
  2. Write the county council to express your concerns about oil rail shipments. Tell them you want communities and ecosystems protected and for any projects associated with oil rail shipments to undergo thorough environmental reviews.
  3. Contact the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services department to advocate that they conduct thorough oversight of oil rail proposals. They have the legal right and duty to protect the public health and safety — ask them to require mitigating measures or deny permits to reduce the risks associated with vessel and rail traffic, wetland and shoreline disruption, climate change, and air pollution.
  4. Reach out to your state legislators to ask for stronger policy. Ask that they do more to protect our communities from fossil fuel exports. Ask legislators to require an EIS for any fossil fuel export project and to pursue legislation to stop climate change.
  5. Sign up for the Clean Energy e-mail list to stay updated. We’ll keep you informed as we continued to learn more about these projects and other proposals that have the potential to affect the health of our rivers, lakes and oceans.
  6. Donate to RE Sources to support our work against fossil fuel exports. RE Sources has taken the lead in defending our ecosystem and community from the impacts of both coal and oil transportation. In 2000, we joined with partners in the region to fight BP’s pier expansion and won — our suit resulted in restrictions on BP to protect the environment at Cherry Point and a comprehensive study of the vessel traffic risks posed by this and other export proposals.

White Papers and Materials