Cities begin interfering with interstate commerce in fossil fuels

AP/Fuel Fix:
As crude oil trains began rolling through its downtown a few years ago, Spokane was among the first cities to pass a resolution calling for stronger federal safety regulations.

But when a mile-long train derailed in the scenic Columbia River Gorge along the Oregon-Washington border last month — after earlier passing through this major railroad hub in eastern Washington — some city leaders said they couldn’t wait for tougher federal protections.

This week the Spokane City Council decided 6-0 to ask voters in November whether the city should prohibit the shipment of crude oil or coal by rail. The ballot measure, if approved, would make rail shipments of crude oil or coal a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $261 per tank car.

Spokane is certain to face a steep uphill legal fight, since the federal government regulates railroad operations and safety. Even council members expect the matter to end up in court, though some say it’s worth putting to voters.

Main rail lines converge in Spokane and there’s no realistic alternative route, BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said.

“There have been a distressing number of incidents in the U.S. and Canada with oil trains derailing or exploding, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, so cities certainly have a strong reason to regulate this kind of traffic,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the jurisdiction over it is firmly centered on the federal government.”

Spokane, which sees up to 19 oil trains a week, is the latest community attempting to assert its local authority in the fight over fossil fuels. Cities from Oakland, California, to South Portland, Maine, have also passed local ordinances to block crude oil or coal terminal projects.

Last month, Oakland unanimously voted to ban the handling and storage of coal and petroleum coke at bulk material facilities or terminals in Oakland over concerns about public health and safety hazards.

Meanwhile, South Portland is defending its city ban on the loading of crude oil into tankers in Portland Harbor in federal court. Its ordinance also prevented the Portland Pipe Line Corp., which sued the city, from reversing the flow of its pipeline to bring Canadi

And last week, Vancouver in southwest Washington voted to ban new or expanded crude oil storage facilities. The decision, however, won’t affect a massive crude-by-rail facility currently proposed at the city’s port and which the city has opposed.

Spokane’s measure is unusual in that the city of 210,000 people is trying to regulate which goods are shipped in trains, rather than other local attempts to regulate the construction of facilities that receive oil or coal.
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The chances these restrictions will survive a costly court challenge are and should be remote.  If they were successful it is likely the shipping companies would bypass these cities and they might also have difficulty getting fuel for their vehicles and electricity for their power.  A place like Spokane would likely also have difficulty relying on solar energy or wind.

When the city officials have to start walking to work every day and have their office power switches turned off, they might change their minds.

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