Candidates for Whatcom County Council aren't talking about it, and a decision on a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point is more than two years away - if it comes at all.
But if you follow the money entering the four council races in the Nov. 5 election, most of it leads to coal - either people in the industry who want to see the terminal built, or a conservation group that is waging a campaign to see the terminal proposal fail.
Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund, which opposes the terminal, has spent about $242,000 as of Wednesday, Oct. 23, on an independent effort to elect council candidates Ken Mann and Carl Weimer, who are incumbents, and challengers Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan.
The group is primed to spend more - it has received about $600,000 in donations for this election year. The biggest donors are NextGen Climate Action Committee of California, with $275,000 donated; and the D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters, with $150,000.
Similar filings on the Public Disclosure Commission website show that Whatcom First and Save Whatcom, conservative political action committees formed two months ago, have spent only $11,521 to support their preferred council candidates: incumbents Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen and challengers Ben Elenbaas and Michelle Luke.
But that number is sure to rise as the committees file more reports, said Kris Halterman, spokeswoman for Save Whatcom.
"We're planning on spending everything we take in," she said, which was about $170,000 this year, according to the PDC.
Of that, $144,000 can be linked to coal. Cloud Peak Energy, a company that is mining coal in the Powder River Basin, gave Save Whatcom $50,000. Coal from the basin, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, would be shipped by rail to Cherry Point for export to Asia.
Global Coal Sales of Ohio also gave Save Whatcom $50,000. Corbin and Barbara Robertson, who own a large coal reserve according to a report from Forbes, gave $32,000. SSA Marine, the outfit that would build Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, donated $12,000.
Save Whatcom campaign fliers don't mention coal but rather "businesses and family-wage jobs" - terms that have been used the past few years as code for the coal terminal in the Gateway Pacific Terminal's public relations campaign. The money, in any case, suggests that coal interests believe the future of the coal terminal is at stake in the council elections.
The Washington Conservation Voters PAC certainly is convinced that the election is about the coal terminal. It gets straight to the point on its fliers, saying the four candidates it supports "oppose the coal terminal."
However none of the candidates have publicly said whether they oppose or favor the export terminal. Mann said he hasn't even talked to his mother about it.
Just as "family-wage jobs" is a buzzword in the elections, so is the less-catchy "quasi-judicial," which refers to the role that council members will play if they vote on a major permit for the terminal, as county code dictates. Council candidates can't show prejudice about the terminal or they risk legal appeals of their decision.
The gap between the candidates' words and the message Washington Conservation Voters is sending doesn't sit well with the four progressives.
Browne said he looked upon the conservation group's tactic "with great disappointment." Weimer said it was "quite annoying."
"We all tried so hard to toe the line on the quasi-judicial thing," Weimer said. "Now we're spending a long time explaining to people our position."
Weimer says it's premature to take a position. A two-year study has just begun that will outline the terminal's environmental impacts and ways to offset them. Weimer said he needs to read that before he begins to form an opinion.
Brendon Cechovic, Washington Conservation Voters' executive director, said the flier is not inaccurate - or at least is close enough to accurate for political purposes.
"First of all, there's no certainty here. Maybe we're wrong. I don't think I am," Cechovic said. "Either these four candidates or the other four are going to make this decision. I would rather have my four."
"It's a campaign flier. We're a campaign organization. Part of our job is to simplify this ... for the benefit of the voters," Cechovic said.
Conservatives running for the council said they aren't paying attention to the outside campaigns of Washington Conservation Voters and Save Whatcom. Knutzen didn't have an answer when asked to respond to the fact that coal money was being used to try to get him elected.
"I have no knowledge of anything on that," he said. "All I'm concentrating on is what I can do with the resources that I have. What other people do with their money, I have no control over it. But if they put something out there that's untrue, I will publicly denounce it."
Kershner said she was disappointed that outside money was turning the elections into a referendum on coal, when there are so many more pressing issues now before the council.
"Realistically, with all that money coming in, it's hard to fight that," she said, "especially when all that outside money coming in is 10 times the amount I raised."
BIG BOOST IN CAMPAIGN DOLLARS
Of the eight candidates for Whatcom County Council in 2009, five are running again in 2013. The two elections are similar on the surface, but donation amounts and spending are far higher this year:
Total received by candidates:* $318,768 in 2009, $477,710 in 2013
Total independent expenditures:** $6,723 in 2009, $268,331 in 2013
From Washington Conservation Voters: $556 in 2009, $242,226 in 2013
* 2009 total through end of year. 2013 total through Oct. 23.
** Campaigns by outside groups that have no spending limit
SOURCE: Public Disclosure Commission