Developers of a proposed oil-by-rail terminal that would be the largest in the nation have poured big money into a port commissioner race in Washington state that may shape the project's future.
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Backers of the Vancouver Energy project have given $370,000 in cash to support Kris Greene, who has expressed support for the terminal proposed at the Port of Vancouver, according to filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.
That represents the bulk of the cash he has raised in the Vancouver port commissioner's race.
His opponent Don Orange is against the proposed $210 million terminal that would handle about 360,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Orange said he would work to end the project's lease at the port.
The terminal has been the subject of heated debate in the Northwest. Project developers see it as an opportunity to link domestic crude oil from the Midwest to a West Coast port and bring jobs and money to the region.
Critics say it poses too great a risk to people and the environment, and the dangers extend well beyond the facility to include communities along rail lines.
Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., operating as Vancouver Energy, have a 10-year lease at the deep-water port about 100 river miles (160.93 river kilometers) from the Pacific Ocean. The proposed terminal would receive an average of four 1½-mile long crude oil trains a day. Oil would be stored on site then loaded onto tankers and ships bound for West Coast refineries.
Vancouver Energy said it supports Greene as the candidate with the right experience to lead the port.
Company spokesman Jeff Hymas wrote in an email that Greene understands the importance of creating jobs and economic growth in the region.
A state energy panel is currently reviewing the project. It will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who will have the final say.
The lease between Vancouver Energy and the port allows for changes by either party every 90 days, port spokeswoman Abbi Russell said.
People on both sides of the issue see the port commissioner's race as a way to cement support or opposition involving the project.
"This race is fundamentally about the terminal," said Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver. "There are a lot of people watching."
He called the amount of money in the campaign unusual.
"This is a small race among local races. It's not one that gets a lot of attention. This is a significant amount of money," he added.
Orange has raised $98,000 in cash, but has also benefited from $297,000 in in-kind contributions, the bulk of which has come from the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund for voter outreach and staff time.
Greene has received $408,000 in cash and benefited from about $181,000 in in-kind contributions, some from Enterprise Washington Jobs, a political action committee whose top donors include Tesoro and BNSF Railway.
"Big oil is trying to buy the race. We're trying to protect the river and we're trying to protect clean 21st century jobs," Orange said. "My intent is to do everything legally possible to stop Vancouver from becoming an oil town."
Greene sent an email late Thursday saying that "the optics of large contributions is not good — and a challenge for my campaign."
He wrote that his opponent was running solely to oppose the terminal before the state energy panel, called the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, completes its review and he disagreed with that.
He also noted that if the panel determines the project "is environmentally safe — then I am FOR the project and the economic benefits it will produce for us. If (the panel) determines that the project is environmentally unsafe — then I am against the project."