Washington Victory Over Shell Oil Trains Signals a Turning Tide

Is the federal government wavering on pushing through ill-advised oil transportation?



From Standing Rock Reservation to the Florida Everglades, 2016 has been an unprecedented year in people’s resistance to the fossil fuel economy. October especially has been a banner month: Mass convergence around the indigenous-led Dakota Access Pipeline protests, activists in three states audaciously (and illegally) shutting down three pipeline valve systems, and groups in the state of Washington forcing Shell to abandon a dangerous oil train unloading facility it had proposed in Anacortes in the northwest corner of the state. The earth-burners have had a difficult month.

I asked Rebecca Ponzio, Oil Campaign Director at the Washington Environmental Council, what it took to accomplish that last goal: How does a group of citizens stop one of the most powerful, frequently vile and ruthless companies from doing something as routine as unloading rail-transported crude oil?

“We sued,” she answered, and through the lawsuit, WEC, Earthjustice, and other groups “won the ability for a more thorough and comprehensive environmental review.” That Environmental Impact Statement, in turn, concluded: “The proposed project would result in an increased probability of rail accidents that could result in a release of oil to the environment and a subsequent fire or explosion… [that] could have unavoidable significant impacts.”

The EIS wasn’t bullshitting about that. Oil train transport is disastrous, and companies lie about their safety records. Shockingly, trains racing at unsafe speeds with volatile, difficult-to-contain oil is incredibly dangerous. Accident risk is extremely high. Magnitude of impact of such an accident is also extremely high.

“This review process created the space to really evaluate the impacts of the project and to engage the public on how this project would impact them – from Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, through Vancouver and the entire Puget Sound,” Ponzio said. And upon the release of the draft EIS, Shell pulled the project. “Once the public had the chance to engage and evaluate this project for themselves, the level of risk became clear and the opposition only grew in a way that couldn’t be ignored.”

Puget Sound refinery officials claimed the decision was purely market-driven, but the subtext was clear: Activists had forced a scientific review, and the review cast the project in the worst possible light. Fighting back worked this time.

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“It is not just countries in the Global South that are at stake in this system. New agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) would further push the boundaries of this international architecture. The aim is to force through agreements to set in place rules that will ensure the rights of corporations over people, the environment and national governments… It defies domestic governments in establishing a system of governance in favor of big capital, where corporate profit trumps the common good. This global institutional infrastructure represents the attempts of corporations to turn the world’s natural resources into commodities to be appropriated and destroyed at will, devastating human civilizations and ecosystems in their wake. The only response is sustained mobilization, both at home and in solidarity with peoples’ struggles abroad.” — Kyla Sankey

While economists debate about the end of oil, and the corporate media and mainstream political candidates dance around the imperative to build a post-carbon economy, hundreds of millions of gallons of crude continue to flow south across America. A lot of the oil moves on trains that have become terrifying mobile bombs which frequently derail, killing rivers and ecosystems and literally blowing up towns.

Pipelines are accepted by the carbon-industrial complex as the lesser evil in oil transport, but as most people know by now, pipeline construction and spills carry environmental risks, both incremental and terminal. Until 2016, the industry had been able to play trains and pipelines off each other. Now, both are under relentless attack by indigenous people, public interest and legal groups, direct environmental action, and a growing, likely irreversible public consciousness.

The pushback has been unprecedented. We are witnessing a full-on social movement against Big Oil’s unsafe and brazen transport practices – both pipeline and rail. Shell’s announcement concerning the Puget Sound refinery follows other pullbacks this year, including at San Luis Obispo and Benicia, Calif.

“In Washington, the fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars lobbying to keep their industry relevant,” Ponzio told me. “But the tide is turning and the reality of these projects – from oil spills to explosive and sometimes deadly train derailments – is a visual and visceral reminder of what is at risk.”

The number and frequency of these victories are increasing – as are the encampments and allies in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The network opposed to both pipeline and oil rail expansion includes not only environmentalists, but landowners, scientists and public officials. The coalition even includes labor unions opposed to the short-sighted comments of AFL-CIO leaders supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Courts and municipal governments are experiencing their own paradigm shifts. When Kinder Morgan proposed piping ethane from eastern Ohio to Windsor, Ontario, the company tried to use eminent domain to force Kentucky landowners to give easements on their property allowing the building of the pipeline. Calling the company’s position “astonishing,” a Common Pleas judge in Kentucky rebuked Kinder Morgan, ruling that the project is neither necessary nor a public use, and thus inappropriate for eminent domain.

And earlier this year, when Pennsylvania General Electric wanted to deposit fracking wastewater under Grant Township in Western Pennsylvania, the township passed a law protecting its residents from arrest if they protested PGE’s creation of an injection well.

Even the federal government is wavering on pushing through ill-advised oil transportation. Federal agencies, although limited in their options for standing up to corporate oil, are opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Back in Washington state, the groups responsible for demanding an EIS for the Puget Sound project – effectively forcing Shell to cancel it – now have their sights set on stopping Kinder Morgan’s expansion, planned later this year, of the TransMountain Pipeline from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000. The expansion would pipe oil from Edmonton through the marine habitats of Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This project fundamentally threatens our economy, critical species like Orcas and salmon, and our climate,” Ponzio told me. “We are working, along with many others, to make sure our elected officials here in the U.S. know how dangerous this proposal is to our region so that the impacts to us are part of the equation.”

Tell the Obama Administration to Abandon the Dakota Access Pipeline


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