Whatcom council member won’t sign letter calling for fossil-fuel reductions

Anticipating that he will help decide the fate of a coal terminal at Cherry Point, at least one Whatcom County Council member shied away from signing a letter to the governor that promotes the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Only one of the four council members endorsed by environmentalists in the 2013 elections signed the Tuesday, Sept. 9, letter to Gov. Jay Inslee supporting his proposal for a clean-fuels standard. Details have yet to be worked out, but the standard would require oil companies to reduce carbon pollution from their product and would create favorable market conditions for alternative fuels.

Council member Rud Browne declined to sign the letter because the council may decide whether to approve a permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year, starting in 2019.

Reducing transportation’s carbon footprint in Washington state has nothing directly to do with deciding whether a coal-export terminal should be built. Even so, Browne exercised an abundance of caution to appear neutral on the port. The letter to the governor opens with strong language about “taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ... and protect our residents from the devastating impacts of climate change.”

“I am trying as best as possible to remain neutral to anything resembling the GPT decision,” Browne said on Wednesday, Sept. 10.

While transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in Washington, coal makes up the biggest part of the carbon budget globally. China gets the majority of its energy from coal and accounts for 27 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel emissions. China would receive most of the coal leaving Cherry Point, at least initially.

Browne said it was his “legal responsibility” to appear neutral, as the permit decision will be made with council members acting something like courtroom judges. Any appearance of bias almost certainly would create pressure on council members to recuse themselves from the vote.

“To execute my responsibility under the law, I don’t believe I can allow any bias or preconceived positions to come into play in that decision,” Browne said. “Therefore I am avoiding any position or discussion on anything related to it.”

Two other council members who received endorsements from environmental groups in 2013, Carl Weimer and Barry Buchanan, didn’t sign the letter to the governor and didn’t return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment. A fourth member of the progressive wave that took over the council in last year’s elections said he didn’t see any real conflict in signing the letter.

“I see where (Browne is) coming from, but I think we’re allowed to have opinions on things that are going on in the world and that are very important to us and to the people we represent,” said Ken Mann, the only County Council member to sign the letter. “I’m becoming more inclined to speak up on issues, even if there is a possibility of a very indirect link and somebody making a claim someday that maybe I’m biased. Essentially, we could tie our hands on every issue if we thought of it that way.”

Mann was asked to sign the letter by the Washington Environmental Council, a high-profile group whose president, Jay Manning, is former director of the Department of Ecology and former chief of staff to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“I think that Governor Inslee is trying to do some really innovative, environmentally conscious things,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with every single thing he’s ever done, but I wanted him to know I like the general tone and approach he’s taking.”

Bellingham City Council was more responsive to the letter than the County Council, with five of seven Bellingham councilors signing: Terry Bornemann, Cathy Lehman, Michael Lilliquist, Jack Weiss and Pinky Vargas. Port of Bellingham Commissioner Mike McAuley also signed the letter. Those agencies don’t have decision-making authority on the coal terminal.