BELLINGHAM No new applications to ship unrefined fossil fuel through Cherry Point can be approved for at least the next two months after Whatcom County Council passed an emergency moratorium Tuesday night, Aug. 9.
The council unanimously passed the moratorium to address concerns about potential public health and safety risks that could come with the increased transportation of unrefined fossil fuels, such as crude oil traveling by rail through the county to two refineries at Cherry Point.
The moratorium does not impact the current refining and shipment of products through the BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries.
In July, the council directed the Planning Commission to study changes to the county’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan that could prevent any future export of unrefined fossil fuels from Cherry Point.
The council gave the commission until January to take testimony, study the issue, and make a recommendation on whether the changes should be made.
Until Tuesday night, the question of whether new applications for exports might be submitted in the meantime, in order to get ahead of any ban, was still up in the air.
In December 2015, Congress lifted a 40-year ban on exporting domestic crude oil to other countries. That created a concern for some that local refineries could shift to shipping unrefined materials abroad, eliminating local refinery jobs.
Effective immediately, the emergency moratorium prohibits the filing and acceptance of applications for county permits for new or expanded facilities that would facilitate the increased shipment of unrefined fossil fuels out of Cherry Point.
It defines unrefined fossil fuels as including, but not limited to, “all forms of crude oil whether stabilized or not; raw bitumen, diluted bitumen, or syncrude; coal; methane, propane, butane and other ‘natural gas’ in liquid or gaseous formats; and condensate.”
Environmental groups lauded the council’s move.
“It shows bold leadership that protects our community and responds to concerns that have been expressed by thousands of people throughout this process about the dangerous risks that coal, crude oil and natural gas exports pose to public health and safety in Whatcom County,” said Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. RE Sources was one of several environmental organizations rallying people to comment on the proposed unrefined fossil fuel export ban.
Alex Ramel, field director for Stand’s Extreme Oil Campaign, said the moratorium showed Whatcom County was ahead of the curve in policy making.
“This is nation-leading and proactive that the council acted to protect the community from unrefined fossil fuel transport,” Ramel said.
Council members specifically wanted to ensure the moratorium and its wording recognize the positive impact existing industry and the refineries have on the community.
“I find the moratorium helpful. I particularly find it helpful because of the discussion that differentiates between raw materials like crude oil and finished products,” said Steve Garey, a former refinery worker and union president who represented workers at the refineries in Anacortes.
Earlier in the evening, when the council was taking public comment on the rest of the Comprehensive Plan update, Garey told the council that when refineries are converted into exporting facilities, most of the workers lose their jobs.
“It’s important to recognize that refineries need to move finished products, but none of us would be served if they were to shut those plants down and export crude oil,” Garey said in an interview after the moratorium was passed.
The council must hold a public hearing on the emergency moratorium within 60 days. After that, an interim emergency moratorium could be put in place for up to six months, which would allow enough time for the Planning Commission to make its recommendation in January, council member Carl Weimer said. Weimer is the member who first proposed the changes.
“That was key,” Weimer said. “I was scratching my head about whether I was going to support the whole comp plan because I felt we should support the Cherry Point amendments, but I’m fine with passing it while we have this protection in place.”
Brad Owens, president of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, said the moratorium was premature.
“The public deserves their due process through the Planning Commission, and pending the outcome of the Planning Commission’s evaluation, the council should respond accordingly,” Owens said.
The moratorium states that under the Washington State Constitution, the county has authority to provide regulation of land uses within the county.
The council also “recognizes the limits to its authority over transportation of certain goods imposed by federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution, and finds that this action is within its authority.”
If any part of the moratorium is found to be unconstitutional or invalid by a court, the rest of it will remain in effect, the ordinance states.
This story was updated at 10:05 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016.