Reflections on the 2nd Anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill | Guest Column

San Juan Journal Op-Ed - Mike Doherty and Lovel Pratt

As we reflect on the second anniversary of the nation’s largest oil spill, we want to share information about the work we are doing to protect our waters, shores and way of life from the lasting impacts of a catastrophic oil spill.

The coastal counties we serve include some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Proposed increases in shipping traffic in the waters surrounding San Juan County and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Clallam County raise concerns about our ability to respond to a major oil spill here.

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell championed several oil spill measures that will enhance Washington state’s spill prevention and response capacity in the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Act. The state Legislature also passed E2SHB 1186 in 2011, which directs the Department of Ecology to update its oil spill regulations.

We have the privilege of being appointed by the Washington State Association of Counties to represent counties on the Oil Spill Rules Advisory Committee that was established to assist in the development of the new regulations (see http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/spills/rules/1106.html).

The update to the oil spill regulations is timely, as Canada will be increasing their oil exports and the Gateway Terminal project has been proposed. Kinder Morgan, owner of Canada’s TransMountain pipeline, just announced plans to expand its capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 850,000 barrels per day.

Much of this product, which will be exported by tanker, is heavy Alberta tar sands oil that if spilled is likely to sink below the water’s surface making clean-up particularly challenging. We are doing our best to help ensure that Ecology’s new rules require that shippers of “unconventional” oils have the capacity to respond effectively to these spills.

In addition, there are plans to build the Gateway Terminal in Whatcom County, which would be North America’s largest coal terminal and is estimated to draw 500 coal carriers per year. These carriers are twice the size of the tankers that currently enter our waters and each would contain two million gallons of bunker fuel for propulsion, another heavy oil that can sink below the water’s surface when spilled.

Washington state has an admirable spill prevention and response record that spans our long history of vigilance from the late Senator Magnuson to Sen. Cantwell, our governor and legislature. However, just because we have not had a catastrophic oil spill recently does not mean that we should not be better prepared to respond to one.

Our quality of life depends upon the health of our interconnected economy and environment, both of which would be severely impacted by a major oil spill. Our capacity to respond effectively will determine the difference between temporary and lasting economic and environmental impacts.

We must learn and apply the lessons of the Gulf oil spill so we don’t have to experience them first hand.

— Editor's note: Mike Doherty is a Callam County commissioner; Lovel Pratt is San Juan Island's District 1 representative, San Juan South, on the San Juan County Council.