A 56-percent majority of Northwest residents support the transportation of oil by rail to reach West Coast refineries, with the refined oil being used for domestic purposes, according to a new DHM Research poll for EarthFix.
However, a 54-percent majority said they have heard or read little or nothing about oil trains.
The poll surveyed 1,200 residents across the Northwest – 400 each in Oregon, Washington and Idaho from June 25-30. The margin of error for each state’s results was 4.9 percent. the three-state regional results had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
Several oil-by-rail projects across the region have raised safety and environmental concerns, and opponent groups are working to stop some projects from moving forward. Oil train derailments in the U.S. have caused explosions and fires in the past year, and one derailment in Canada killed 47 people.
But most of the Northwest residents polled disagreed with opponents who argue that the risks of transporting oil by rail are too high. Only 32 percent of respondents agreed that oil-by-rail shipments should be stopped to protect public safety and the environment. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they disagreed and 15 percent said they don't know.
John Horvick, vice president and director of research for DHM, said the poll shows the most people aren't opposed to the idea of oil trains.
"At least, they're not opposed," he said. "I don't know that there's a ton of enthusiasm necessarily."
A majority of respondents – 66 percent – said railroads have good safety records and will do their best to prevent accidents and spills when transporting oil by train.
"For the most part, people overwhelmingly thought the railroads can be trusted to handle this," Horvick said.
Statistically speaking, major derailments or collisions on railroads are rare. But a recent EarthFix story revealed many within the railroad industry have concerns about railroads' commitments to safety.
Most people polled said they hold businesses in the oil industry as well as elected officials and governments responsible for preventing oil train accidents and spills. While 88 percent said businesses in the oil industry need to prevent accidents and spills, 73 percent said elected officials and others in government need to prevent accidents and spills.
At the Port of St. Helens industrial park in Clatskanie, Oregon -- the most frequent destination for oil trains through Oregon accepting three per week -- terminal owner Global Partners has announced it will only accept oil in newer model tank cars with added armor. The vast majority of tank cars in use today are an older model long known to be prone to punctures.
Patrick Trapp, executive director at the Port of St. Helens, said the crude by rail project as helped the port maintain roughly 50 jobs, a significant number for Columbia County, and carries the potential for 30 more. He also said the port favors handling domestic oil headed to a West Coast refinery.
"This is their business -- they want it to be done safely. They expect it to be done safely," Trapp said. "I can't speak for other projects across the state or the region, but for our area here it's been going on for about a year and a half now and they've been doing it very responsibly, very methodically."
DHM Research poll results also show many people in the Northwest aren't following the issue of oil train safety. The survey asked people how much they've heard or read about oil trains in their state. Across the region, 27 percent residents said "nothing" while another 27 percent said "not much."
Horvick said that's not surprising.
"For most people across the Northwest region, this isn't something that's happening in their backyard," he said. "For many people who aren't living in communities with trains passing through this may be out of sight, out of mind."
Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, draws a connection between how much people know about oil trains and how much they support such projects.
"What we've seen so far is that the more people know about these projects, the less they like them," De Place said. He said public opinion polls he's seen tend to show support wanes as the public becomes more informed. "Right now we're still in a place where most people haven't heard of the projects or don't really understand the dynamics around them."
The Sightline Institute has examined crude by rail extensively in the Northwest, and has been critical of many projects. An analysis by the institute in May showed the Northwest averages nine freight train derailments per month, most of them minor.
De Place pointed out that survey respondents specifically supported crude by rail if the oil is being used for domestic purposes, which may not be the case once it reaches refineries. Crude oil exports have been banned for 40 years, but many in Congress have been calling for an end to the ban, which was recently loosened. In 2011, the U.S. exported more petroleum product such as gasoline and diesel than it imported for the first time since 1949.
The poll also found more people support restricting information about oil train routes to regulators and first responders rather than releasing it to the public.
That information became the subject of a transparency debate after the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads to provide it to states. Railroads then asked states for nondisclosure agreements. Oregon and Washington both eventually made the information available free of charge after receiving several public records requests. Some states remain undecided.
When asked whether the public should know – for the safety of the community – when oil is being shipped on trains through their area, only 34 percent of residents said yes. When asked if only regulators and first responders should know when oil is being shipped on trains through their area to prevent possible attacks, 47 percent of respondents said yes.
Horvick said those results did surprise him.
"I would have thought it would have been the reverse," he said. ""When we do polling on any number of issues that get at the question of transparency and information to the public, the default position for people tends to be the more information the better. That my government shouldn't hide or prevent me from knowing anything. ... But at least framed up this way they're willing to withhold some information if it is to prevent a possible attack."
Support for oil trains was a little higher in Idaho at 64 percent compared with 59 percent support in Oregon and 53 percent support in Washington. Overall, 21 percent of those polled said they don't know whether they support or oppose the idea of shipping oil by rail.