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North Dakota congressional delegation urges veto of Washington oil train legislation

An oil train slowly moves through Fargo-Moorhead as seen Monday, May 9, 2016. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota’s congressional delegation is urging the governor of Washington state to veto legislation they say would result in a “de facto ban” of crude-by-rail traffic from the Bakken.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong and Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, all Republicans, wrote a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee about a bill approved by Washington legislators that would reduce the volatility of crude oil shipped by rail.

The bill prohibits refineries and other facilities from unloading oil from a rail car unless the oil has a vapor pressure of less than 9 pounds per square inch, a lower limit than what North Dakota requires.

Members of the delegation argue the legislation would do little to make rail transportation to Washington refineries safer.

“(The bill) relies on an unscientific understanding of crude-by-rail transportation and, according to current science, would not improve safety of workers or those along rail lines,” they wrote in a letter dated Friday, April 26.

Inslee, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, received the bill Thursday, April 25. He has 20 days to take action, said governor spokeswoman Tara Lee, adding she does not know how he intends to act.

Inslee has made climate change a focus of his campaign for president, including pledging to not take campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies.

Washington legislators who sponsored the bill say it’s aimed at protecting communities from fiery train derailments by reducing the risk of shipping Bakken crude.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the primary sponsor of the bill, has criticized the federal government for not adopting a nationwide vapor pressure standard for crude oil shipped by rail.

“If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” Billig said in a statement in March. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”

North Dakota regulations that took effect in 2015 require companies to remove the most volatile gases from Bakken crude oil and keep the vapor pressure at no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch.

Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s top oil regulator, testified to Washington legislators that there is no scientific basis to support a vapor pressure limit of 9 psi. Helms encouraged lawmakers to wait for the results of an ongoing Sandia National Laboratories study.

North Dakota ships about 150,000 barrels of crude oil a day by rail to refineries in Washington.

The final bill as amended would prohibit any new facility from loading or unloading crude oil from a rail car unless the oil has a vapor pressure of less than 9 psi. Existing facilities that expand crude oil volumes would have to adhere to the new limit within two years of the expansion. Failing to meet the standard could lead to fines of up to $2,500 per day per rail car.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the industry continues to oppose the bill as amended.

“Ultimately, this bill is not in line with interstate commerce law, and it’s going to be litigated,” Cutting said. “We believe that litigation will prevail against the state of Washington.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, a three-member board led by Gov. Doug Burgum, is scheduled to meet in a closed executive session on Tuesday to discuss a potential lawsuit against Washington.

North Dakota’s delegation also emphasized in the letter to Inslee that the legislation “oversteps its legal boundaries,” writing that the federal government has authority to regulate the shipment of hazardous materials by rail.

“While the state of Washington does have certain authority to legislate on health and safety issues, this bill does not offer a sound basis for doing so,” they wrote.

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