I have always enjoyed visiting new places and, more or less, living life by the seat of my pants, but I’m happy to to stop, breathe and take in the sights… for once.

I drove through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California last month, enroute to Washington after three years in Baton Rouge.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I can feel my heartbeat coming through my t shirt. It is soft and rhythmic. The feeling is unsettling. My own mortality is gently beating under a thin piece of cloth, wrapped in a couple layers of flesh, cruising across state lines at 80 mph as semi trucks and other death mobiles weave in and out of traffic for 3,000 miles.

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Moving pains

The first time I had crawfish was in a restaurant in Lake Providence, Louisiana, called The Dock. It sat just above the lake with an outdoor patio (the actual “dock”) that went into the muddy water. You can walk onto the dock and see turtles sunning themselves on rocks or peering out of the lake’s surface. The patio is decorated in old buoys and strings of dirty Christmas lights. 

I had just moved to Baton Rouge and was on my way back when I passed The Dock for the second time. I had never had crawfish, and so I pulled in, against my girlfriend’s wishes.

The inside was exactly what I pictured rural Louisiana to look like. Creeky wood floors, a range of taxidermy on the walls, the New Orleans Saints were on the only TV. Baskets of clumpy fried food were on every occupied table, and man, did it smell good.


I’ve only lived in Louisiana now for more than a month. Nothing about my move from Washington has been easy. I lifted everything I had in the Northwest and shipped it via U.S. Postal Service to the Southeast.

On the surface things are nearly the same. Our cities have the same same retail outlets, country roads are bumpy, money is still green. But there is so much to get used to. On a map, Louisiana looks like any other state, aside from its peculiar boot shape. When you drive the roads and experience the countryside at eye-level, you realize the map is a lie. What looks like solid ground turns into swamp and an oceans of knee-deep mud. Roads turn to bridges. Eventually, the roads end and the swamps dissolve into the salt of the Gulf. Everything about travelling in Louisiana is inconsistent. The gas prices, the erratic drivers, the stop-and-go drivers, the colors of the pavement. Shortly after moving here I suffered frequent anxiety attacks while driving.

There are some more subtle differences about Louisiana that I’m not so fond of. Such as the lack of quality coffee. Luckily Baton Rouge is a college town, and espresso is in no short supply. But PJ’s Coffee doesn’t do it for me, and neither does CC’s Coffee. They’re both too bright and the baristas are too happy. Even the Starbucks here kinda sucks. At least Washington’s Starbucks give off the local vibe. I miss the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall coffee shops where the espresso is actually made, not squeezed from a box. I miss pretentious baristas. Where do I watch the rain fall? Where do I ruminate over my life choices on Saturday afternoons? I miss the conscientious nature of Washingtonians. The coffee culture.

It’s not all bad though. Lately, I’ve been writing local news stories for a weekly paper. When I tell people where I’m from, they usually answer in surprise. I recently wrote an article about a peace celebration in town. One of the religious leaders said, “You must be used to this sort of thing then.” She was right. Seattle has its fair share of peace-niks and I’ve definitely rubbed elbows with a lot of them. But even though Northwesterners have a rep for conscientiousness, the issues in the South are still very much the same, regardless of the side you’re on: Environmentalism (coastal erosion), equality, the local falvor, and ultimately progress. Baton Rouge isn’t as different as I expected, and neither is Louisiana. To be honest, I expected hostility, or at least indifference, to the way I talk and dress, but the opposite has been true.

I was lamenting some of these problems to a mutual friend who had also moved to the area recently. It’s not so much the location that makes Louisiana great, she said, it’s the people.

What’s bringing Bakken’s black gold to the PNW?

Oil production in the U.S. has come back in a big way, which means all five refineries in Washington are increasing their capacity to meet the persistent demand of global oil consumption.

In 2013, the U.S. consumed an average of 18.89 million barrels of petroleum products each day, slightly more than the year before (18.49 million barrels per day), according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Crude oil production in the U.S. continued to surge, from 5 million barrels per day in 2008, to 7.4 million barrels per day in 2013. It is one of the biggest booms in oil production in the U.S. and its heart lie in North Dakota, a state with a population less than one million.

2013 was a good year for North Dakota, which is now the second largest producer of crude oil in the country. The state produced more than 313 million barrels of crude throughout that year, an average of 858,000 barrels of crude oil per day. As of April, the state produced more than 1 million barrels of oil per day, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

The surge in oil production is primarily due to the Bakken Shale formation. The formation is composed of about 24,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia, according to the American Petroleum Institute. It contains an estimated 7 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil and is a part of the Williston Basin, an area that encompasses about 150,000 square miles of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. A couple hundred miles due southwest lies the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, home to the eight largest coal mines in the U.S. and the potential starting point for the debated Gateway Pacific Terminal facility at Cherry Point.

But for a state with only one oil refinery, energy production more than triples the state’s energy consumption, which is why oil companies across the country are craving a bigger slice of the Bakken pie. Companies in Washington are no exception.

The only issue is that, by comparison, the states east of the Rockies are teeming with oil pipelines, terminals, refineries and power plants, while the Pacific Northwest remains relatively undeveloped.

“There is a lot more expansive infrastructure east of the Rockies, where the West Coast is an oil island and not connected with the rest of the country,” said Frank Holmes, director of the Northwest region and marine issues at the Western States Petroleum Association. “It has an isolated market, if you will.”

With no pipeline to carry the crude and such a large distance to cross, how will the crude get to Washington?

The answer: Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF).

Developing the industry

Eighteen crude-by-rail terminals have been built in the Bakken oil fields, some of which are already bound for Washington. Even so, industry leaders, such as British Petroleum, Tesoro, Phillips 66 and Shell are preparing to expand.

Some of the Washington refineries have already developed crude-by-rail facilities. Other facilities are in the works, according to a report by the Washington Department of Ecology. Each crude-by-rail train can carry about 100 railcars.

The most recent crude-by-rail upgrade was the completion of British Petroleum’s facility last December, which can now receive one train per day. A couple miles south, the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale, is also on its way to upgrading a crude-by-rail facility that can accommodate one train per day as well. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, according to a Phillips 66 spokesperson.

Another crude-by-rail upgrade was in 2012 at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington. The refinery can receive one train per day has already begun taking on the Bakken imports. The other Anacortes refinery, operated by Shell, has proposed crude-by-rail upgrades that can take on two trains per day and is in the environmental review process.

The U.S. Oil refinery in Tacoma, which processes the least amount of crude is expected to begin an upgrade that could bring 15 trains per month at the end of 2014. (Other crude-by-rail facilities in Washington have been proposed as well, including a Tesoro-Savage terminal in Vancouver that could take up to eight train loads per day. If approved, the existing and proposed crude-by-rail facilities could take on a total of about 22 full trains per day.)

Those five refineries are capable of turning 631,700 barrels of crude oil per day into petroleum products, according to the EIA. Their location along the Puget Sound provides tanker transportation up and down the West Coast, as far North as Alaska and as far West as Honolulu.

The closest refinery to the Puget Sound is in Great Falls, Montana, about 500 miles away. The second nearest refinery is in California’s Bay Area.

Unlike Montana and California, Washington is not an oil producing state. The Evergreen State’s refineries are a result of the rise and decline of oil markets around the world, Holmes said.

“Initially, the [Washington] refineries were built to refine Canadian crudes,” Holmes said. “All through the ‘60s and ‘70s that was the crude oil source.”

Much of the crude oil in Washington has arrived from long distance routes, travelling several hundred miles from the oil sands in east Alberta along the TransMountain Pipeline; from the TransAlaskan Pipeline and across the Gulf of Alaska; from countries in the Middle East and South America, across the ocean in barges. The Bakken crude, however, travels from a more direct route.

“There are no pipelines infrastructure-wise to bring that crude oil to market,” said Holmes. “That’s why that crude is being put on rails, which is the next best thing.”

Despite this, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent an advisory stating that the Bakken crude may be more flammable than traditional crude. The advisory came after recent derailments carrying the Bakken crude resulted in fiery explosions, including one that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

Legislation to increase the safety of the tankers has so far failed. However, Holmes expects regulations on the crude oil shipments take effect after Washington’s 2015 legislative session.

Boomtowns, then and now

In the early days, dense brush, untouched forests and thick bogs made land travel difficult for settlers in northwest Washington. Though the land was ripe with resources, travelling was only effective via boat, especially in Whatcom County. That was before the railroads came in.

“We were looked to as a resource extraction place, and that’s really what the railroad was about: Taking these things, this lumber and coal, and to some degree the fish,” said Whatcom Museum of History and Art historian Jeff Jewel. “The beauty of the west back in the 1880s and 90s, was that little people kind of put it together. Little people, I mean, they’re not giant big corporations.”

In 1887, the eastern connection was established in Washington by the Great Northern Railway Company. The Great Northern Corridor is a rail system spanning almost 3,500 miles and connects Chicago to Vancouver, British Columbia, and has been the Pacific Northwest’s connection to the Midwest now for more than a century.

The various companies in 1800s and early 1900s that pieced the railroad in Whatcom County together have since been absorbed by BNSF. BNSF’s network of railroads connect the Puget Sound to the historic corridor and to North Dakota.

Train traffic in Washington once used to haul goods out, such as lumber, coal and salmon, is now used to haul goods in. Among those goods is the Bakken crude.

Crude oil production in the Bakken has only been a recent phenomenon. Though crude exploration in North Dakota has been ongoing since the early 20th century, production of crude oil did not begin until the 1950s. Only recently has production spiked.

New technology in hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has increased crude production in new areas, Holmes said. This new technology of extraction forces pressurized liquid into wells, breaking up bits of rock formation underground to create an oil flow. Similarly, using new technology to drill into the oil shale horizontally has also increased in oil extraction. Annual oil production in North Dakota had been hovering around 30 million barrels per year in the early 2000s, according to the EIA. By 2008, that number nearly doubled and has been increasing since.

This past March, North Dakota produced about 30.2 million barrels of crude oil, the largest amount in the state’s history. North Dakota is second only to Texas (which also beat its own record last March with nearly 92 million barrels that month).

Increased production over the last few years has also caused a large increase in crude-by-rail export volumes since spring 2011, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The organization reported exports of less than 100,000 barrels per day in spring 2011 but more than 800,000 barrels per day at the end of 2013. The East and West coasts have been the primary recipients of these shipments.

The EIA reported that the Bakken shipments to the East Coast, known as PADD 1 (Petroleum Administration Defense District), have resulted in lesser foreign imports. Similar results have been found in the West Coast, known as PADD 5, which contains Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii.

‘Oil is now’

Crude oil production in the PADD 5 primarily comes from California and Alaska (which are ranked third and fourth in U.S. production, respectively). According to the EIA, the region’s total crude oil production reached 406.5 million total barrels 2013. Additionally, the region received almost 400 million barrels of crude from outside the U.S. that year, primarily from Canada, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Ecuador.

But now the imports from within the U.S. have started shifting. Since 2008, the same year the Bakken oil production began its exponential increase, imports from the Midwest, and the Bakken oil fields, have seen a slow increase in from about 11.5 million barrels per year to nearly 15 million, according to the EIA. Meanwhile, imports from the Gulf Coast have decreased from about 62 million barrels per year to 51 million. PADD 5’s own production in Alaska has also decreased significantly, Holmes said.

“All oil fields decline over time. We’ve seen a shift from Canada to Alaska, to foreign oils, to the domestic market in the Bakken,” Holmes said. “With the declining product in Alaska, this is a new source in domestic oil production.”

The West Coast oil market’s slogan is similar to an organic farmer’s: Buy local, think global. The crude produced, imported and refined in PADD 5 generally stays within the market, Holmes said. That includes the products made in Washington, which are primarily transportation fuels. Those products are delivered via Olympic Pipeline as far south as Portland, Oregon or on freighters, between the Aleutian Islands, Honolulu and the I-5 Corridor.

The system in place has worked, but the Bakken Boom is forcing its growth in Washington.

“I can see sighting a pipeline, getting all the permits for a pipeline taking at least a decade. Oil is now,” Jewel said. “We’re consumers. We need stuff.”

Washington history: Killer salmon

I’m researching the history of Birch Bay, Wash., when all of the sudden I find this headline:

“1941… A salmon attacks a 12-year-old boy in Birch Bay on July 9, 1941”

So, that happened.

Here’s the rest, according to the Birch Bay Historical Timeline:

On July 9, 1941, a 35-pound Chinook (king) salmon attacks a 12-year-old boy who is fishing for crabs in Birch Bay (Whatcom County). The boy survives the encounter none the worse for wear, but the fish finds itself belly up on the barbeque.

Bold Gladiators

In the early 1940s Birch Bay, located in extreme northwestern Washington, was a popular resort destination, and fish and man in the bay were long since used to each other. So it was a real surprise on July 9, 1941, when a 12-year-old Lynden boy, Walter Richmond, suddenly found himself confronted by an angry king salmon in the waters of Birch Bay.

Young Richmond was walking through the water just offshore, fishing for crabs, when he happened upon two large salmon, one a little larger than the other. He watched expectantly for the fish to swim away. But the bigger one did not. Instead it made a mad rush at the lad, who dropped a sack of crabs he was holding and fought back with a potato fork which he had been using for crabbing. The fish retreated – but not far. Likewise undeterred, Richmond stood his ground.

For a brief moment fish and boy warily eyed each other, two bold gladiators prepared to battle to the death. Then the salmon charged again. This time Richmond struck home with his multi-pronged dagger and dispatched his aquatic opponent. The 35-pound fish was dragged ashore and ingloriously barbecued.

Scrappy Salmon

No one at Birch Bay could remember ever hearing of a salmon attacking a human. Some  speculated that it was trying to protect a mate, but no one really knew what caused it to go off the deep end. Maybe the kid just really freaked the fish out. And like all good fish tales, it grew bigger with each telling. By the time the Lynden Tribune reported the story on its front page the following week, the scrappy salmon was mistakenly reported to have been 35 feet long.

A late ‘Thank You’

This the second time I’ve been down south this year. This time I’m with my parents though. A couple months ago I was sucked into a family vacation with them. I say “sucked” because my mom guilt-tripped me into vacationing with them for about two months prior to buying my plane ticket. 

I’m outside of Orlando today. Yesterday I was in Freeport, Commonwealth of the Bahamas. We took a 48-hour cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Bahama Islands for the Thanksgiving weekend.

I know I’m supposed to be Thankful for these sorts of things. I’m supposed to be Thankful that I’m an American, loaded with money, and that I have the ability to go on cruises on giant boats and eat and drink like royalty. But I’m not. Frankly, the whole experience is a little disgusting. At each meal you’re expected to stuff your face with buffet-style food. The majority of the people around you are drunk, upper class, smug white men. At every corner there is a another sale waiting to happen. Someone is trying to sell you a Bahamanian T-Shirt, a trip back to the islands next year or a condo in Del Rey. The music is loud and crappy. The drinks are weak. The people are trying too hard to have fun.

I miss Bellingham. I want to spend the long Thanksgiving weekend with a 16 oz London Fog and a list of books to read. If I need to travel I can take the bus. I miss the rain and the cold and the way people still smile at you when you hurry past on the wet sidewalk.

I don’t mean to get on the anti-capitalism soap box, but this Thanksgiving has turned into this same thing as Christmas: an excessive waste of money in exchange for a vain attempt at happiness.

This year I find myself Thankful for the things that I am without (and what a better way to express that feeling than through a blog?). I am thankful for the comforts in my life that I don’t express enough gratitude toward: my girlfriend, my 20-inch TV, the good cooks in my family, my parents’ loving personalities, their home, their dog, the city of Bellingham, Western Washington University (my school), the predictability of Washington weather and all the good people I have met this past year.

Thank you.