Tesoro places its bet on a new, West Coast oil terminal

'It's incredibly important to the West Coast, because we don't have pipeline access,' says one exec. 'So when you look at where the crude oil through the shale revolution is actually coming from, we don't have the capability to get it to our refineries.'

Even as U.S. crude prices remain stuck below $50 a barrel, one energy company is betting big on an oil project that could transform energy infrastructure on the West Coast.

Tesoro is looking to develop a 42-acre site at Washington's Port of Vancouver into one of the largest crude-by-rail facilities in the country. Through a joint venture with logistics firm Savage Cos., the $210 million Vancouver Energy terminal would receive up to four "unit" trains transporting 100 to 120 cars filled with oil per day.

"It's been an active port for more than 100 years, and what we're proposing to build here is a crude-by-rail transfer facility to be able to bring North American crude to the West Coast refineries," said Keith Casey, executive vice president of operations at Tesoro, standing in Vancouver Energy's gravel lot at the industrial port.

Tesoro is investing in crude-by-rail infrastructure, taking recent delivery of new tank cars at the Port of Vancouver in Washington. These DOT-120 tank cars will be among the first next-generation models to hit the tracks.
Karen Stern | CNBC
Tesoro is investing in crude-by-rail infrastructure, taking recent delivery of new tank cars at the Port of Vancouver in Washington. These DOT-120 tank cars will be among the first next-generation models to hit the tracks.

If approved, the Vancouver Energy terminal would receive up to 360,000 barrels of domestic crude daily, arriving on trains run by Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway. The trains would be drained; the oil would stored in above-ground tanks on the property, then loaded onto Panamax tanker ships. The 300,000-barrel Jones Act-compliant American tankers would then make the journey down the Columbia River and out to refineries along the coast.

Tesoro would claim the first 60,000 barrels for its own refineries in Washington and California; the remaining 300,000 barrels of capacity would be commercially viable, meaning other energy companies could pay to utilize the facility, which will be operated by Savage.

The lion's share of oil would come from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, an area where crude is regularly loaded onto trains. While much of that formation's crude has made its way to East Coast refineries, West Coast demand has picked up over the past several years as refiners look to access more domestic supply that's priced lower than the international benchmark Brent crude and of a relatively a higher quality.

The project sheds light on a much larger issue affecting the region's refiners: a lack of infrastructure, which has kept them from participating in the U.S. energy boom.

"It's incredibly important to the West Coast, because we don't have pipeline access. We have no other transportation means," said Casey. "So when you look at where the crude oil through the shale revolution is actually coming from, we don't have the capability to get it to our refineries. That's what's making us more dependent on foreign, imported oil coming into the West Coast. Infrastructure projects like this are absolutely vital to being able to provide that crude oil to the West Coast manufacturing centers."

The region's pipelines already operate at full capacity, and no plans to construct new ones are on the table. That leaves rail as the only option to increase domestic crude capacity. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), crude by rail to the West Coast soared from an average of 23,000 barrels per day in 2012, to 157,000 in 2014.

Analysts say energy companies' push to expand crude-by-rail infrastructure makes sense, since Bakken oil is light and sweet, meaning it's easier to process and, given its lower carbon density, better on the environment than some imported options.

"It would be a benefit to the refiners in the area. They'd be able to use domestically produced crude oil versus importing it," said Denton Cinquegrana, chief oil analyst at OPIS Oil Price Information Service. "It also makes sense because it's an easy trip, relatively speaking. It's probably about $3-$4 cheaper to ship it by rail from North Dakota to Washington than it is to some of the refineries on the East Coast."

Tesoro Oil Refinery, Anacortes, Washington.
Kevin Schafer | CNBC
Tesoro Oil Refinery, Anacortes, Washington.

West Coast refineries, particularly those in Washington state, once got most of their oil from Alaska, but the state's output is now only a fraction of what it used to be. The Alaska North Slope produces roughly 500,000 barrels per day, down from just over two million barrels per day at the peak in 1988. California's production has also dropped, down to about 550,000 barrels from 1.1 million in 1985. The EIA reports that while U.S. production increased by 3.2 million barrels per day from 2010 to 2014, production from the West Coast/Alaska region dropped by 100,000 barrels.

That means refineries have increasingly relied on imports to compensate for the declines. Imports to the area have surged to an average of 1.1 million barrels per day over the past five years, according to the EIA, from 200,000 in 1990, much of it coming from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Canada, Ecuador and Colombia.

"The West Coast is significantly disadvantaged as far as getting its crude oil supply given the declines we've seen in Alaska and California production over the last 20 years, so refiners out there, including Tesoro, are looking for alternative supplies," said Lipow Oil Associates President Andrew Lipow, who said he thinks crude by rail to the West Coast is here to stay. "The reason that the industry went ahead with crude-by-rail was to compete with the higher-price imports that are coming from places like Russia and Saudi Arabia at the same time that the U.S. has been limited on exports of its domestic production."

As the debate for lifting the four-decade-old ban on exporting crude ratchets up, questions about whether the Vancouver Energy terminal would be well-positioned to take advantage of such a change have also been raised. But Tesoro says that not part of its thinking.

"We understand there is a discussion going on in Congress on what ultimately happens with the export of crude oil," Casey said. "Today it's not legal to export crude oil, so it's not part of our design or contemplation."

Rather, its strategy entails getting more domestic crude to more domestic refineries, thus making another market for U.S. production that will boost demand without turning abroad, he said. Both Lipow and Cinquegrana note that projects like this could actually dampen arguments for lifting the ban.

But it all comes down to infrastructure. While Vancouver Energy's project is the largest, a number of companies have crude-by-rail proposals currently under review. Midstream company NuStar, for example, is trying to get a 22,000-barrel-per-day facility passed at the same Vancouver port, and Royal Dutch Shell is looking to expand a 60,000-barrel-per-day facility in the northern part of the state.

Review is the key word. Amid a string of fiery oil train accidents across North America in recent years, all of these projects have been met with resistance including opposition from local residents and environmental groups that have staged protests and been vocal against plans to bring more oil trains to the region.

Tesoro and Savage first proposed their terminal in 2013. Over the summer the Army Corps of Engineers announced further scrutiny of the plan, a decision that could cause delays and which keeps Tesoro from announcing an anticipated date of completion. Next month, the results of a state environmental review are expected, and that report will be crucial to determining the state's final decision on the project

Still, Tesoro remains confident that its project will get the green light, encouraged by the results of a recent DHM Research survey that found nearly 70 percent of area residents support the terminal for its expected economic benefits. (A Vancouver Energy-bankrolled analysis suggests the economic impact would be $2 billion.)