A controversial $150,000 study into what Whatcom County can and can’t do when it comes to fossil fuel exports moving through the community will begin once an outside law firm has been hired for the project.
The County Council voted 5-1 to give the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office the go-ahead to hire a firm. Barbara Brenner voted no and Todd Donovan was absent.
A list of possible firms has been narrowed to Cascadia Law Group, environmental attorneys with offices in Seattle and Olympia, although a contract hasn’t been signed.
The county needs to hire outside counsel because attorneys in the civil division of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office don’t have the expertise, or the time, to study the county’s authority on such matters, officials said.
Council members have said the study, which has been sharply criticized by opponents, will look at 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.
Brenner feared moving forward with the study would hurt Cherry Point industry.
“This will be another nail in the coffin, so I’m not supporting it,” she said.
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.
The study, which the County Council hopes will be completed by December, has been contentious – as has been a second six-month moratorium on new shipments of unrefined fuels through Cherry Point that the council approved in March.
The council’s actions have been 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.
Opponents, many of them refinery workers and business groups, have told the council its decisions 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.
They have questioned the council’s authority, saying it was stepping into territory delegated to the federal government via the Commerce Clause.
“We’re not challenging federal law. We’re not challenging federal authority,” council member Satpal Sidhu said Tuesday before the council’s decision, adding it was clear the county had limited scope and was trying to understand its purview in mitigating impacts.
Supporters of the council’s actions have 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.