New policies that could affect the future of heavy industrial development and environmental health at Cherry Point will go back before the Whatcom County Council, as the county’s Planning Commission finished its recommendations Jan. 12.
The commission debated the meaning of changes to the county’s comprehensive plan late into that night.
Despite the complicated nature of writing policy by vote, the commission approved its final draft – a compromise that pulled from changes proposed by County Council member Carl Weimer and changes proposed by Cherry Point industries through the Whatcom Business Alliance.
The portion of the plan up for discussion guides development at Cherry Point, which is home to BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries, Alcoa Intalco aluminum smelter, Petrogas and other businesses, many of which center on fossil fuels.
Some recommendations would encourage clean and low carbon-emitting technology for future development, continue to limit the number of piers at the site, and have Whatcom County encourage federal agencies to enforce the Magnuson Amendment, which limits crude oil handling in Puget Sound.
What the policies don’t direct is regulation that might limit the export of fossil fuels out of Cherry Point.
The recent lifting of a ban on exporting domestic crude oil had raised concerns that Cherry Point might become a pass-through for international markets that want crude oil from the Bakken region. Instead, the county will study ways to limit fossil fuel shipment and later look at those policy changes, but that study might not be done until December 2018.
Before the final policies were approved Thursday in a 5-1 vote, with three of the nine members absent, the commission heard public comments, and spent the better part of three hours tweaking its draft.
Tony Larson, president of the Whatcom Business Alliance, again made the case for WBA’s alternative, written as a compromise to the council’s version.
“Businesses at Cherry Point – when they sneeze, the Whatcom County economy will catch a cold,” Larson said. “We share the goal to improve the quality of life for everyone in Whatcom County.”
Eddy Ury of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities’ Clean Energy Program called on the commission to include stronger language about enforcing crude oil limits under Magnuson.
One of the major changes accepted Thursday removed reference to an application for a fourth pier in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. On Jan. 3, outgoing state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced his decision to incorporate the 45-acre cutout once set aside for that pier into the reserve.
One of the policies approved is a study of ways the county could legally limit crude oil, coal and natural gas exports from Cherry Point, which is to be completed by December 2018.
Planning Commission member Andy Rowlson also proposed conducting another study that would examine ways to support economic development at Cherry Point and other industrial urban growth areas in the county, a proposal fellow member Gary Honcoop supported because it might provide clarity to anyone who wanted to build there.
“If we’re going to restrict activity and we still have that area designated as heavy industry urban growth area, we should hopefully through the proposed study provide some answers as to what Whatcom County will accept,” Honcoop said. “There’s been multiple industries that have tried to come here, and every single one has had a bull’s-eye put on their back and shot at.”
But member Natalie McClendon said the whole portion of the comprehensive plan they’d been working on emphasizes and lays out what can be built there.
“If anything, the study about looking at ways to limit fossil fuel export is balancing it out against the emphasis of the entire section,” she said.
The second study was not included, after a 3-3 tie led to the motion’s failure.
The proposed policy updates for the comprehensive plan heads back to the council, which can only update it once a year, so these changes may be discussed at the same time as others come forward this year.
Pam Brady of BP Cherry Point’s government and public affairs office said she was disappointed the commission didn’t include all of the suggested changes that the WBA submitted.
“We believe WBA’s changes promoted both economic growth and environmental stewardship,” Brady said. “We’re looking forward to working with County Council going forward to make sure both of those interests are protected.”
Alex Ramel, field director for the environmental group Stand.Earth’s extreme oil campaign, said the plan was good enough to pass on the council, where people may bring up some of the same points they made in hundreds of comments in writing and in person throughout the process.
“My main point would be that the public has very clearly asked for both prohibition of new unrefined fossil fuel export at Cherry Point and protection for local jobs,” Ramel said in an email.
Ury said RE Sources was happy to see that the county would encourage the enforcement of Magnuson Amendment provisions, and recommended the study of how to act further to limit crude oil, coal and gas exports.
“The county urgently needs to be best equipped with the tools to defend the County’s regulatory authority, given the likely legal challenges they can expect when the County abides by and enforces the law in rejecting certain projects,” Ury said in an email. “It will save the County and taxpayers a lot of money in the long run. We hope to see this study completed in 2017, and to have further changes to county code following its recommendations.”
Something else that may come into play: WBA appealed the county’s determination that the changes to the comprehensive plan won’t likely have significant adverse environmental impacts. That appeal might go before the county hearing examiner.