Rail safety measures at BP Cherry Point refinery explained
No new applications to ship unrefined fossil fuels through Cherry Point will be accepted for another six months after the Whatcom County Council extended a moratorium Tuesday night, Sept. 27
The extension was approved 6-1, with Council member Barbara Brenner opposing it, partly because the definition of unrefined fossil fuels in the ordinance includes substances such as methane, propane and butane, which may be byproducts of the crude-oil refining process.
Brenner said she was opposed to shipping crude oil and unrefined fossil fuel to other countries, and felt that refining should be done under more stringent U.S. laws, but did not like that the other substances were included in the ordinance.
“If you want to do this on exportation of unrefined fossil fuel, I’d support it, but that’s not what this is,” Brenner said. “I just feel like there was a better way to do this. It got extremely polarized and that upsets me.”
Council member Todd Donovan noted that the ordinance excluded byproducts from existing refinery operations at Cherry Point industries.
Under that exemption, a facility such as Petrogas, which exports liquefied petroleum gas byproducts from Cherry Point refining, would not be prevented from applying for the types of permits excluded under the ordinance.
On Tuesday, Petrogas and Intalco filed an affidavit with Whatcom County showing that Intalco sold its wharf to Petrogas along with other associated items for $122 million.
Other County Council members gave their reasons for supporting the ordinance, ranging from protecting against public-safety risks posed by increased oil-by-rail traffic to wanting to ensure no new applications were lodged while the council figures out exactly where its legal authority to regulate export projects lies.
Pros and cons
The council’s move came after more than three hours of public input Tuesday night from many who were adamantly opposed to the moratorium and dozens of others who were staunchly in favor of extending the policy put in place with the unanimous passage of a 60-day emergency ordinance in August.
Among those who commented were people who work at the BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries, Alcoa Intalco Works, and related contractors, who reminded the council of the contributions Cherry Point industries make to the local economy.
In general they highlighted the thousands of jobs provided, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue the county receives, and donations and volunteer hours. They called on the council to reject the moratorium rather than risk losing jobs.
I would really hate to set these jobs aside, to set these opportunities aside, literally hand them to our neighbors to the north or to the south and starve on our principles, instead of enjoying the economic stability that these jobs could bring.
Nathaniel Maddux, president of the union that represents machinists at Intalco, during a public hearing at the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Sept. 27
Nathaniel Maddux, president of the local lodge IAM 2379 machinists, which represents employees at Intalco, told the County Council that it felt like trying to save jobs at Cherry Point had been the theme of his life, fighting to save his father’s job when he worked there, dealing with curtailments, and now dealing with the moratorium “that basically inhibits growth.”
“We need to be willing to generate new family-wage jobs,” Maddux said during the public hearing. “I’m not saying we need to abandon our environmental responsibility by any means, but I would really hate, I would really hate to set these jobs aside, to set these opportunities aside, (and) literally hand them to our neighbors to the north or to the south and starve on our principles, instead of enjoying the economic stability that these jobs could bring.”
On the other side of the argument were people who supported the measure, citing climate change, lax environmental oversight in other countries that might receive American crude oil, the potential to lose jobs at the refineries if they are turned into pass-throughs for crude oil, and the protected treaty rights of Lummi Nation, which has cultural and historical ties to Cherry Point.
I understand that many people here are very afraid of losing those jobs. ... In fact if we allow export of unrefined fossil fuels, that is going to happen, because those family-wage jobs are going overseas right with that unrefined fuel.
Judy Hopkinson, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Bellingham and Whatcom County, during the hearing Tuesday, Sept. 27
Judy Hopkinson, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Bellingham and Whatcom County, said the league supports the moratorium.
“I know what it means to lose a family-wage job, and I understand that many people here are very afraid of losing those jobs. And I understand that they have a very good reason to be afraid of that,” Hopkinson said during the hearing. “In fact, if we allow export of unrefined fossil fuels, that is going to happen, because those family-wage jobs are going overseas right with that unrefined fuel.”
Many thanked the County Council and said that Whatcom County had the opportunity to be a leader in the shift away from fossil fuels.
In July, the council directed the Planning Commission to study changes to the county’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan that could prevent 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.
The ordinance passed Tuesday prevents any new applications for exports being submitted in the meantime, in order to get ahead of any ban.
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.