One of the key issues in this year’s race for Whatcom County executive is the future of development in the Cherry Point industrial zone west of Ferndale — a 7,000-acre tract that’s home to two oil refineries, an aluminum smelter and some of the area’s highest-paying jobs.
Since mid-2016, there’s been a ban on new or expanded operations in the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area, and on the shipment of unrefined fossil fuels through its terminal, as county officials update a comprehensive plan for the area under the direction of the County Council.
In January, the council hired a law firm to write language for amendments to the comprehensive plan, which describes how officials want to see the area grow in the next few years and possibly for decades in the future.
An updated draft of the proposed amendments was posted online July 16 and has been sent to the Planning Commission and to Planning and Development Services for review. It allows existing refineries to continue operating with certain limits, but prohibits new fossil fuel refineries and restricts refinery expansion.
It encourages the development of renewable energy facilities and sustainable businesses in the face of climate change.
The two candidates with the most votes in the primary will be on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
Four candidates respond
In written statements about Cherry Point submitted to The Bellingham Herald, all four candidates said they recognize the industrial area’s economic importance and the need to balance business interests with environmental concerns.
“What is good for our community and what is practical?” Sidhu said in an interview. “A lot of people say ‘Let’s shut them down.’ But what about the next day?”
Sidhu has voted for extending the moratorium several times as the topic was discussed during his tenure on the council.
Tony Larson, also a candidate for county executive, has been involved in the debate as head of the Whatcom Business Alliance, an advocacy and educational organization. He’s also the publisher of Business Pulse magazine.
“I would advise the council to include all stakeholders in the conversation as they develop permanent language in the Whatcom County comprehensive plan regarding our Cherry Point heavy industrial area,” Larson said in an email. In an interview, Larson said that he believed business interests were being left out of the most recent discussions.
County executive candidate Karen Burke said the county executive must foster trust in government.
“Energy industry workers must be at the table to ensure they have a say in their future,” Burke said in a statement. “I am determined to make this transition as smooth as possible for working families. We have to stick together to protect our future.”
Candidate Jim Boyle said he supports the moratorium as the planning process is finalized, and said that the inclusion of industry representatives can help county officials avoid over-regulation.
“Unintended restrictions may hinder the development of sustainable products that are needed to fight climate change,” Boyle said in a statement.
Uncertainty called troubling for business
Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the comprehensive plan is a critical issue because of Cherry Point’s importance to the Whatcom County economy.
He said the three years of discussion has caused anxiety for businesses and workers whose jobs depend on the refineries and related industries.
“Uncertainty is the big pain point. These large institutions who need to plan, we’re not letting them do that,” Occhiogrosso said.
“The conflict is ‘How do we save existing jobs, existing industry, along with working on climate change and along with managing innovation technology within the energy sector?’ ” he said in an interview.
“We can’t shut off the fossil fuel industry and expect our economy to function as it does now,” he said.
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County executive’s role
While the county executive doesn’t have a vote on the Cherry Point comprehensive plan, the new executive’s job will be to implement its directives at the administrative level.
“Whoever is in the executive’s position will have broad discretion in how to enforce it and how to apply it,” said Eddy Ury, clean energy program manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.
RE Sources, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental education, has supported the temporary moratorium and limits on refinery expansion.
Ury said RE Sources’ goal isn’t to close the refineries, as some critics have claimed, but rather to make sure that environmental regulations are followed and that the environmental effect of new development is considered.
“It’s not that radical what the County Council is trying to do,” Ury said in an interview.
County Council members first passed the Cherry Point expansion ban as an emergency ordinance in August 2016 and have voted to extend it several times, most recently on July 9 by a vote of 5-1, with Barbara Brenner opposed and Tyler Byrd absent.
Votes on Cherry Point have split the council along ideological lines, with more conservative members voting against the measure and the more liberal members supporting it.
Opponents have portrayed the ban as a hindrance to economic development. Supporters claim the ban is necessary until the new comprehensive plan is written.
Either way, the region’s importance to the Whatcom County economy is undisputed.
Highest wages in Whatcom County
A March report compiled by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, funded by Larson’s Whatcom Business Alliance, showed that Cherry Point industries provide at least 3,320 jobs, or about 3.75% of all employment in Whatcom County.
The average annual wage for workers in Cherry Point jobs is $110,690, more than double the average annual wage of $48,030 in Whatcom County, according to a July 3 report from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Both the BP Cherry Point Refinery and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter are among the county’s top 10 employers, providing jobs for 850 workers and 720 workers respectively.
Industries at Cherry Point pay millions in taxes every year and also contribute tens of thousands of dollars annually to local nonprofit organizations — including the Boys and Girls Clubs, United Way and the YMCA.
Jobs vs. environment labeled false narrative
Burke said changes in the Cherry Point comprehensive plan won’t destroy the prospects for living-wage jobs.
Rather, she said the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will create jobs, and that the refineries will continue to operate.
“The current narrative has centered around a false choice: Jobs or the environment,” Burke said in a statement. “But we know that having both a healthy economy and a healthy environment is not only possible, it is necessary.”
Boyle said the Cherry Point area would be perfect for data storage or alternative energy businesses, such as a proposed biodiesel plant at the Phillips 66 refinery.
“The process would have multiple benefits such as providing for high-paying refinery jobs, waste reduction, and the production of low-carbon fuels,” Boyle said in a statement. “The goal is to ramp up production of renewable fuels to match the decrease in refining fossil fuels.”
Alternative energy called key to future
Larson praised the biodiesel refinery plan.
“This is exactly the type of innovative, environmentally transformational project expansion we should be supporting and encouraging,” he said in a statement. “In addition to the environmental benefits, it could infuse as much as $1 billion into our local economy, creating jobs for families that need them. However, these and other projects from all industries located there could be jeopardized by the permitting changes currently under consideration.”
Sidhu, who was dean of engineering and trade at Bellingham Technical College from 2001 to 2008, said his experience as an engineer has guided his votes on the council.
“As long as petroleum is part of our energy mix, I’d like to see it refined at our Cherry Point refineries, where producers have a good safety and environmental track record,” Sidhu said in a statement.
“However, industry lobbyists are purposefully mislabeling this as a radical anti-job initiative. That’s not an accurate representation of the facts,” he said.
Ecologically sensitive region
Adding to concerns over Cherry Point is its adjacent waters, which are an aquatic reserve, and the coastal reach that is home to wetlands and other ecologically sensitive areas.
It’s known as Xwe’ chi’ eXen to members of the Lummi Nation, the region’s first human inhabitants, and it has historic and cultural significance to the tribe.
Opponents of Cherry Point expansion fear the possibility of oil spills in Bellingham Bay, fires and toxic contamination, Ury said.
“The stakes are really high in the context of climate change and degradation of the Salish Sea ecosystem,” Ury said.
Ury said the cannabis industry is a perfect example of a thriving business that’s highly regulated.
“We want to protect what we have,” he said. “Responsible legislation will encourage that. I just don’t buy the argument that regulation will drive away industry.”
Burke suggested focusing industry toward the Interstate 5 corridor, preserving farmland and open space.
“At the same time, we should focus on infrastructure development and site improvements to create ‘ready to go’ land throughout the county for businesses and industries that are of a community benefit,” she said.
Larson said he favors “smart development” that would protect critical habitat, wetlands, streams and sensitive shoreline.
“... We can leverage Whatcom County’s proximity to the Canadian border and build a modern, clean international business park that aligns with our county’s environmental and community values and also facilitates the growth in higher paying jobs,” Larson said. “This project would serve the high demand of Canadian companies and afford local businesses the opportunity to grow in a professional and quality business park.”
Boyle also said that agriculture and warehousing would bring jobs without harming the environment.
“The type of industry that can be recruited to the area should be limited to those that will not require shipping access to prevent additional threats to the Salish Sea and the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve,” he said.
Sidhu said it’s reasonable for the County Council to give some proposed industrial projects increased scrutiny.
“The County Council had the foresight to see potential negative impacts to jobs and increased environmental risks should Cherry Point become a crude oil transshipment terminal,” Sidhu said. “Instead of waiting for a problem to arise, the council took the prudent step of calling a timeout to develop new and smarter language for the comprehensive plan.”