Whatcom Council approves second 6-month ban on crude oil exports

Oil trains at the BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop.
Oil trains at the BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop. The Bellngham Herald file

The Whatcom County Council has approved a second six-month moratorium on new shipments of unrefined fossil fuels through Cherry Point, saying members needed more time to consider land use rules and find out what they can legally do to protect people and the environment as demands push in on the county.

The temporary halt has been contentious and was spurred, in part, by Congress deciding in December 2015 to lift a 40-year ban on exporting domestic crude oil to other countries. Some fear that local refineries could shift to shipping unrefined materials abroad, eliminating local refinery jobs as pressure increased on deep-water ports such as Cherry Point.

Other concerns included proposals to move more crude oil and other unrefined fossil fuels through Whatcom County via train, pipeline and tanker – heightening local fears about safety and spills.

So the County Council, on Tuesday night, once again approved a moratorium on applications for new or expanded facilities for shipping unrefined fossil fuels out of Cherry Point by a vote of 6-1, after more than two hours of public input. Most people who went before the County Council supported a new moratorium.

It replaces one the council approved in September, which in itself was an extension of an emergency moratorium. The measures don’t affect current refining and shipment of products through BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries.

Council member Barbara Brenner voted against extending the moratorium. She said that while she doesn’t want to see crude oil shipped overseas, she didn’t like that the moratorium also applied to a number of refined products.

The council has been accused of hurting Cherry Point jobs, but most members insist they were trying to protect them.

“If the refineries and the limited amount of people around them feel that this is an inappropriate action that we as a community want to keep refining American crude on American soil by American workers under American environmental controls,” Council member Rud Browne said, “then I think they need to ask: if the intent is not to ship this stuff overseas, if the intent is not to ship the jobs overseas, then why did the oil companies successfully lobby Congress to lift a 40-year ban on the export of crude?”

Council member Satpal Sidhu said that when he asked the refineries for assurance that they would not shut down their refining operations and become crude oil terminals, he was told they could not provide such assurances.

“Our corporate management makes global decisions based on where and how we can maximize our profits,” Sidhu said he was told.

“Now, you decide what is in the best interest of the local community,” he said Tuesday to those at the public hearing. “Do we make it easier for refineries to export all the manufacturing jobs along with the unrefined crude oil? Or do we hold them responsible toward the local communities and keep these refining, manufacturing jobs in our communities?”

Pros and cons

The arguments for and against extending the moratorium for another six months were much the same as the last time the two sides faced off.

Refinery workers and representatives said the council could harm family-wage jobs and tax revenue and make it tough for the refineries to continue to compete.

“I am concerned the moratorium adversely affects the businesses within the Cherry Point UGA (urban growth area) and our ability to be competitive in our industries, to contemplate growth and potentially flex to a changing regulatory environment,” said Pam Brady of BP Cherry Point.

Brady said competitors in Skagit and Pierce counties, as well as in Burnaby, B.C., who don’t face the same restrictions would be happy to fill the void.

“I question why the County Council are using moratoria to prevent economic growth for companies which create high-paying jobs and have a proven track record of responsible environmental protections,” she said, adding that the council was “sending a message to all future investors that Whatcom County is closed for business.”

Eileen McCracken, with Phillips 66, questioned whether the county had the power to regulate trade among states and with foreign nations, which she said was delegated to the federal government via the Commerce Clause.

Supporters of the moratorium once again said it was needed because of 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.

Tribal member Joel Ridley Sr. said the Lummis have fished, crabbed and harvested clams at Cherry Point through the ages.

“These waters are very important,” Ridley said. “These waters have sustained us for millennia.”

Krista Rome, an organic farmer near Everson, said the most pressing issue was climate change.

“What the council is considering, in actuality, in limiting the export of unrefined fossil fuels is a well thought out political compromise – one that protects existing jobs, current fossil fuel needs of our state as we transition away from fossil fuels, while also preventing additional threat to the environment,” Rome said.

“It’s not the radical change that I know we need right now,” she said, “but it’s progress and I accept it and I appreciate it.”

Past actions

The council unanimously passed the original emergency moratorium in August, 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.

In July, the council directed the Planning Commission to study changes to the county’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan as it relates to unrefined fossil fuels from Cherry Point. The commission put forth its proposals in January, which still must go to the council.

Meanwhile, the council is seeking legal opinions about what members can and can’t do regarding unrefined fossil fuels moving through the community. That could include such possibilities as getting funding to increase the safety of trains or forcing railroads to increase safety at crossings, Council member Carl Weimer said in an interview.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea