Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill triggers oil-spill fears

Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — An energy bill now before Congress could reverse a 28-year-old law limiting oil-port expansion and tanker traffic in Puget Sound, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, said yesterday.

The bill would change key portions of the Magnuson Amendment enacted in 1977 to control the expansion of oil refineries and the number of oil tankers entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

The House may debate the measure as soon as tomorrow.

Inslee said the bill likely will pass the House but faces tougher opposition in the Senate.

Called the Gasoline for America's Security Act, it was introduced by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, in response to damage that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the oil industry on the nation's Gulf Coast. The bill aims to streamline efforts to expand existing oil-refinery capacity. Just one portion deals with the Magnuson Amendment.

The amendment, passed as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prevents oil companies from expanding their Puget Sound operations beyond what's needed to serve the growing energy demands of Washington residents.

It is named after the late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., who pushed it through Congress.

Barton's bill would allow refineries to expand to serve the needs of other states, and possibly other countries. If it becomes law, oil companies could refine as much oil as they wanted.

Inslee said he worries that could increase the possibility of an oil spill. Last year, more than 600 tankers entered Puget Sound. Any increase in tanker traffic would dramatically increase the risk, he said.

"We're going to make a very strenuous effort to right this wrong," Inslee said. "This is a very serious issue, and we intend to treat it as such."

Inslee said the change is an attempt by British Petroleum to skirt a March 2004 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that BP violated the Magnuson Amendment by building a dock at Cherry Point near Bellingham, where the company operates a refinery.

BP executives Bill Kidd and Mike Brien dispute that and said changing the amendment makes sense. They compared the Magnuson Amendment to a law that would require California wine producers to sell only to California residents.

"At a time when supply is so tight, we're looking for ways to increase capacity," Brien said. "A law like Magnuson, which reduced supply, isn't what's best for the country right now."

However, the BP executives said the company has no immediate plans to increase production at Cherry Point.

Inslee said he hasn't decided whether to try to amend the bill to keep the Magnuson Amendment intact, or allow the House to pass it as written and then work to defeat the measure in the Senate.

Ed Sheets, a former legislative aide to Magnuson, said the idea behind the amendment was to accept the risk of an oil spill with the current amount of tanker traffic, but not to take on additional risk for oil to be sent to other areas.

"The intent was to limit the facilities so that Washington and Puget Sound wouldn't see any greater risk of oil tankers," Sheets said. "That was good policy then, and it's worked for 28 years to the benefit of the state of Washington. I think it's a mistake to change it."

Brien said changing the law wouldn't roll back existing environmental precautions.

"The amendment that we're seeking to allow us to continue our operations does nothing to change any environmental rule that we'll have to comply with," Brien said.

Kimberly Wetzel: 202-661-0114

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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