Why Whatcom Council wants $150K study into fossil fuel exports from Cherry Point

A study into what Whatcom County can and can’t do when it comes to fossil fuel exports moving through the community drew sharp criticism when it went before the County Council Tuesday night.

Opponents, many of them refinery workers at Cherry Point, said it would hurt the ability to compete and ultimately lead to job loss.

Council members said the proposal to spend $150,000 to study the county’s authority to limit negative impacts on safety, transportation, the economy and the environment from crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases, and natural gas exports from Cherry Point was being misrepresented.

“It’s not a sinister plan to shut down companies,” council member Satpal Sidhu said.

The policy says nothing about funding a study to limit exports, council member Todd Donovan said, adding the proposal has become politicized.

“We’re not claiming we have the authority to limit exports. The study is trying to find the tools that a local government might have to deal with the kinds of things that are associated with increased shipment through the community, through our waters,” Donovan said. “We don’t know what those tools are.”

For example, Sidhu said, what are the responsibilities of a railroad company and BP Cherry Point should an accident occur, inside or outside BP’s facilities?

“That’s what we want to study,” Sidhu said. “We want to know what on behalf of you as citizens, who holds that bag?”

Council members approved the study and other changes to the county’s comprehensive plan for Cherry Point development, by a vote of 6-1 Tuesday, with Barbara Brenner voting no, after 3 1/2 hours of public comment.

Other changes included limiting the number of industrial piers at the site to the existing three, unless a permit has been grandfathered in.

Job fears

Cherry Point is home to BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries, Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, Petrogas and other businesses, many of which center on fossil fuels.

Refinery workers, mostly from BP, and representatives turned out in force Tuesday to tell the council its decision would jeopardize family-wage jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue – in turn hurting the local economy and charitable organizations that rely on donations from workers and the refineries.

Such a decision by the council would make refineries in Whatcom County an unattractive place to invest, council members were warned.

“Without investment, business decays,” said Bob Allendorfer, refinery manager for BP Cherry Point. “We lose jobs and the community suffers. Don’t export these jobs to different parts of the world. It takes investment to adapt to the changing economic environment.”

Reasons for the County Council’s considerations included Congress lifting a 40-year ban on exporting domestic crude oil to other countries in December 2015. That created fears for some 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.

Oil spills and rail disasters in other communities also were a concern for the council, regardless of assurances about safety from those who spoke Tuesday.

The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster and explosion killed 47 people and caused $300 million in damage to the economy of a small community in Quebec, council member Rud Browne said.

“These amendments are intended to preserve and grow the refinery jobs at Cherry Point – and the emphasis is on refinery jobs – while preserving the health, safety, ecology and economy of the rest of the community,” Browne said.

Supporters of the changes also showed up in big numbers.

They expressed concerns about climate change, the potential to lose jobs at the refineries if they are turned into pass-throughs for crude oil, harm done to the Salish Sea should there be a spill, and the protected treaty rights of Lummi Nation, which has cultural and historical ties to Cherry Point.

“No one is asking that the refinery jobs that have supported our community go away. But shipping crude to China is a job killer, just not for the Chinese,” Bellingham resident Jayne Freudenberger told the council. “How long would it be before those good refinery jobs disappeared on those same ships off to China where pay and costs are cheaper, leaving us with just an oil depot.”

The County Council’s decision on Tuesday doesn’t end the second six-month moratorium on new shipments of unrefined fossil fuels through Cherry Point that members approved in March.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Related stories from Bellingham Herald