Grassroots Activists Just Proved Big Oil Can’t Buy Its Way Into America’s Hometowns

Thanks to a grassroots uprising and Earthjustice litigation, the city of Vancouver, Washington, has delivered a huge blow to the largest oil-by-rail project proposal in North America.

Community organizer Linda Garcia banded together with environmental activists and union leaders to speak out against a proposed massive oil terminal in her hometown of Vancouver, Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee rejected the proposal in January, citing environ
Community organizer Linda Garcia banded together with environmental activists and union leaders to defeat a massive proposed oil export terminal in her hometown of Vancouver, Washington. (Thomas Patterson for Earthjustice)

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“Their first mistake was in trying to talk down to us,” says Linda Garcia, a community leader in Vancouver, Washington, a scrappy, former timber town that sits just across the water from Portland and west of the iconic Columbia River Gorge.

Garcia is referring to Tesoro-Savage, which just suffered a final blow in its quest to build North America’s largest oil export terminal in this mid-size port community on the Columbia River. Yesterday, after thousands of activists like Garcia spent years speaking out against the project, and after Gov. Jay Inslee rejected Tesoro’s proposal in January, the Port of Vancouver officially terminated the company’s lease.

The terminal is the latest in a string of fossil fuel projects to be nixed across the Pacific Northwest. Over the past few years, local communities like Vancouver, with help from Earthjustice, have rejected multiple attempts to turn their emerald green region into a black hub of terminals, trains and pipelines.

When dirty energy companies first began proposing these projects, they seemed unstoppable, with their billionaire backers and the promise of blue-collar jobs. Companies like Tesoro-Savage want to increase corporate profits by selling their crude oil, fracked gas and coal to Asian markets as Americans look beyond these fuels to cleaner energy. Researchers estimated that these proposals, when they first appeared in the region in 2012, would create about five times as much carbon pollution as the Keystone XL pipeline.

But a broad coalition of environmental activists, community organizers, union leaders and Native American tribes in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have found common ground in opposing them. Together, they’ve drawn a thin green line against exporting the earth’s dirtiest resources and locking the world into decades of continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Garcia remembers the first time she heard of Tesoro-Savage’s plans to build a giant oil terminal next to her home in the Fruit Valley neighborhood, a low-income community near the Port of Vancouver.

“They spoke with their money, and they were very slick,” says Garcia, who adds that Tesoro-Savage spent most of the meeting plugging job creation, a particularly salient talking point in the county’s poorest zip code.

But the company devoted little time to the proposal’s other details, including the health and environmental impacts from the terminal. The new facility would handle an estimated 360,000 barrels of oil per day delivered by diesel-powered, mile-and-a-half-long trains that would run through neighborhoods like Fruit Valley and along the banks of the Columbia River Gorge, an unspoiled treasure of temperate rain forest and desert protected as a National Scenic Area. In addition to potential rail accidents and emergency response delays from increased train traffic, local communities were concerned about the terminal and trains’ air pollution, further burdening areas like Fruit Valley. Once the trains arrived at the terminal, the oil would be offloaded to oil barges and tankers, which would spew more air pollutants as they traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to the environmental health impacts, groups like the local longshore union at the Port of Vancouver were alarmed by Tesoro’s troubled history, including a $10 million fine for air pollution violations and a $720,000 fine for safety violations in Anacortes, Wash., where seven workers at the refinery died in an explosion in 2010.

“We knew this was not a great company,” says former union president Jared Smith, who’s worked as a longshoreman at the port since 2000. “And when you started to look into the company’s statements, like wanting to help Americans achieve energy independence and then realizing that their CEO, Greg Goff, was working behind the scenes to get the national oil export embargo lifted, it was clear they were lying.”

He adds that the union’s concerns were heightened further after trains filled with crude oil began blowing up. The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in 2013 killed 47 people, and was followed by a steady beat of fiery train explosions as more crude oil was shipped by rail across North America. The 2016 oil train derailment in the nearby town of Mosier, Ore., saw 14 oil train cars derailed, with four of them catching fire. Mosier’s fire chief, Jim Appleton, has said that if the wind had been blowing that day, as it usually does during the summer in Mosier, the town “would have been obliterated.”

If an oil train derailment or explosion were to occur at Vancouver’s port, where union workers work inside a loop within the terminal that only provides one way in and one way out, “we would be trapped,” says Smith.

Anti-oil terminal activists like Garcia and Smith began banding together, but they were just the tip of the spear. Advocacy groups like Stand Up to Oil helped connect locals in Vancouver to other Pacific Northwest communities to form a broader coalition that went beyond individual community fights.

Soon, people from all across the region were speaking out, with cities as far away as Spokane joining with the city of Vancouver in opposing the Tesoro-Savage terminal. Meanwhile, Earthjustice built a legal case against the terminal, working to ensure that the enormous, diverse group of people that had come together against the proposal were making their strongest arguments.

During a five-week adjudication hearing in the summer of 2016 before a regulatory body called the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, Earthjustice attorneys Kristen Boyles and Janette Brimmer helped shine a light on the serious public safety and environmental impacts from the project. These included everything from seismic-related risks and harm to salmon and steelhead fisheries to increased greenhouse gas emissions. The hearing featured a broad array of opposing parties working together, such as the Yakama and Umatilla Tribes, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, a local developer, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources. On the opposing side, Tesoro-Savage experts went so far as claiming that an oil spill in the Columbia River could actually be a good thing because it would create jobs.

“Earthjustice was the glue that held the legal case together,” says Dan Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper, adding, “I really appreciated having attorneys who were both going to win on the facts but also help us tell the story at a more gut level.”

In November 2017, their hard work paid off. The council unanimously voted to recommend denial of the project, an extraordinarily rare action. About a month later, newly elected, anti-terminal candidate Don Orange joined with anti-terminal commissioner Eric LaBrant and a third port commissioner and voted to end Tesoro-Savage’s oil lease in March 2018. Finally, in late January, Gov. Inslee came out in opposition to the terminal.

Now that Tesoro-Savage has officially withdrawn its proposal, it joins a long line of other now-defunct projects along the west coast, many of which have been taken down by Earthjustice litigation and grassroots advocacy. These include a crude-by-rail proposal at the Shell Refinery in Anacortes, Wash., and  three proposals for oil shipping terminals in Grays Harbor, Wash. Most recently, a state review board in April struck another blow against a proposal to build an enormous coal export terminal in Longview, Washington.

“At first, many people thought these were quixotic battles against Big Oil that we couldn’t win,” says Earthjustice’s Boyles, who was one of the first attorneys to take on this work. “Now, thanks to the tremendous, diverse local opposition, people across our region feel empowered to fight for their vision of their community, one that doesn’t bend to corporate greed.”

In addition to taking down a giant dirty energy project, Garcia, Smith and others have something unexpected to celebrate: the development of an extended family within a community of people who started out not even knowing each others’ names. Now that common ground has been found, many are excited to use that grassroots’ energy to force other progressive changes in their local communities.

“When I felt like giving up, these people had my back and they gently and lovingly pushed me back up to the plate,” says Garcia. Just then, two fellow activists enter the local coffee shop, and her face lights up. “These are my favorite people in the entire world!” she exclaims, as hugs ensue. “It sounds strange to say it, but they’re my oil family.”

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.