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Whatcom County might ban unrefined fossil fuel exports at Cherry Point

Oil tanker cars are inspected Oct. 8, 2014 at BP Cherry Point Refinery's rail loop.
Oil tanker cars are inspected Oct. 8, 2014 at BP Cherry Point Refinery's rail loop. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County could try to prevent the export of crude oil and coal from Cherry Point, long home to the county’s heavy industry and, in recent years, the epicenter of community debate over environmental and economic issues.

Until recently, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export facility received the most attention from both those who hope to curb fossil fuel use and protect the environment, and those who hope to attract more living-wage jobs to a county whose median income has not kept pace with the cost of living.

But after GPT was denied a needed permit from the Army Corps of Engineers this May because it would impact Lummi Nation treaty-protected fishing rights, the focus for the future at Cherry Point shifted toward some proposed changes to a document that guides development decisions in the county: the Comprehensive Plan.

Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer proposed changes that would prevent development supporting the export of unrefined fossil fuels, which could include crude oil, coal and natural gas. The changes also would address the history of the area and elements that played into the Corps’ decision.

It’s acknowledging that yes, the existing industries are real important and a real driver to our economy, we don’t want to change that. But also putting in an acknowledgment of the ecology and historical and cultural importance of the area.

Carl Weimer, Whatcom County Council member who proposed changes to Comprehensive Plan that could limit fossil fuel export

“It’s acknowledging that yes, the existing industries are real important and a real driver to our economy, we don’t want to change that,” Weimer said. “But also putting in an acknowledgment of the ecology and historical and cultural importance of the area.”

Timing

Because a multiyear update to the Comprehensive Plan was supposed to be completed at the end of June, Weimer’s proposed changes, which came forward for discussion July 5, seemed to some to be an attempt to shove major changes through “at the 11th hour.”

Many community members, including representatives from BP Cherry Point refinery and labor groups such as the Whatcom Business Alliance and Northwest Jobs Alliance, called for more public process and time before considering the changes.

“Our members expressed to us some concern about the process and transparency and the timing,” Tony Larson, president of the Whatcom Business Alliance, explained in an interview Thursday, July 28. “The language introduced is a real 180-degree change in what has been the policy up to this point for Cherry Point.”

But Weimer wanted to be clear that it was not his intent to be secretive or bring the changes last-minute, but the timing was the product of the council having been limited from talking about anything related to the coal terminal or development at Cherry Point since 2012.

“Because of our concerns about our quasi-judicial status because of the pending dock proposal out at Cherry Point, our legal staff kept telling us you guys should avoid talking about that stuff,” Weimer explained. “When the Army Corps made their decision in May, and the Department of Natural Resources made theirs not long after, it kind of freed up the council to talk about that stuff. But when we did, people thought it was too late in the process.”

On Tuesday, July 26, in response to concerns about how quickly the changes had come up, County Council voted to send the proposal to the county’s Planning Commission, which will study them and get back with recommendations in mid-January 2017.

The commission’s work could also include studying what legal authority the county has regarding development at Cherry Point.

“I think it’s unclear to me and the rest of the council what legal authority we have to do some of the changes,” Weimer said. “We are restrained by federal law and the commerce clause of the constitution.”

Concerns: Jobs, existing industry

One of the main concerns expressed to the council about the language before Tuesday’s vote was that some of the changes could prevent existing businesses, such as the BP and Phillips 66 refineries and Puget Sound Energy’s Whitehorn generating station, from expanding or changing the way they operate. Someone pointed out that it could limit even expansions meant to reduce pollution from the facilities.

Weimer said he altered the language to address those concerns.

“I tweaked it to make it clear it wasn’t just any expansions, it was expansions that would allow for new exports of unrefined products,” Weimer said. “I think the current version doesn’t affect anything industries are doing out there. It could restrain if they all of a sudden want to double the number of oil trains through town to export crude oil through town.”

BP Cherry Point refinery sent a letter to the council stating that the refinery continues to have concerns about the proposed changes on the business, “and impact on our employees, business partners and our community.”

Others told the council they worried the changes would put existing jobs in jeopardy.

“Whatcom County’s largest private industrial zone, the source of thousands of family-wage jobs critical to the economic vitality of the area, is not something that should be used as a political football. Workers in Whatcom County expect policies that expand job opportunities, not limit them,” Kathryn Stenger, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, wrote in an email.

I think there’s a blame on the fossil fuel industry for the condition of our environment. The bottom line is we the consumers create the demand. It’s our vehicles, our home heating, our consumption of electricity that is creating the demand.

Brad Owens, President of the Northwest Jobs Alliance

Brad Owens, president of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, said the changes were “an assault on fossil fuels.”

“I think there’s a blame on the fossil fuel industry for the condition of our environment,” Owens said in an interview. “The bottom line is we the consumers create the demand. It’s our vehicles, our home heating, our consumption of electricity that is creating the demand. … So I think there’s a mistaken perception that if you limit the output or you just keep it at its current level that it’s going to make a difference with respect to fossil fuel consumption.”

While refinery representatives and leaders from the labor community expressed concerns that the changes threatened local jobs, environmental advocacy groups RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Stand (formerly ForestEthics) argued the potential for crude oil export from existing refineries could be even worse for jobs.

It puts a lot of our existing jobs at risk. They want to ship to other parts of the world, refine it there, and have us import it.

Matt Petryni, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities Clean Energy Program Manager, on the possibility of crude oil exports

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, said Matt Petryni, RE Sources’ Clean Energy Program manager.

“It puts a lot of our existing jobs at risk. They want to ship to other parts of the world, refine it there, and have us import it,” Petryni said. “The last two years, we’ve gotten more of an understanding of the risks of oil export, and that’s really shaping the policy conversation. How do we respond to that risk? How do we keep the jobs here that we have? Carl’s amendments are one approach to doing that.”

Alex Ramel, field director for Stand’s Extreme Oil Campaign, said the proposed changes also make sense to prevent health and safety risks from oil trains.

“Our community ended up with oil train loops at both refineries without them having been really vetted in the same way we’re now vetting oil train projects. They happened before we knew the extent of health and safety risks, before the derailment in Quebec, which killed 47 people,” Ramel said. “It’s totally appropriate for the County Council to, knowing what we know now, ask …is there a way we can make sure there isn’t going to be more oil train traffic than what’s already permitted? Especially if it’s for the export market.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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