Whatcom County to usher in new era of fossil fuel industry policies to protect Salish Sea, restrict new projects

Whatcom will become one of the first refinery communities in the U.S. to permanently prohibit new refineries, piers, transshipment facilities. | July 15, 2021

Attend the July 27 hearing

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — On July 27, the Whatcom County Council will hold a public hearing and likely vote on permanent land-use policies that will prohibit new refineries, transshipment facilities, coal plants, piers, and wharfs in the Cherry Point industrial zone in this northwest corner of Washington state. Cherry Point is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries and is a significant source of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea. The County Council introduced the policies at a meeting on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The council is expected to approve these policies during a meeting on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

These regulations could usher in a new era of fossil fuel policymaking in the U.S., where local municipalities can use existing regulatory power to restrict the growth of the fossil fuel industry in an era where the U.S. must swiftly transition to renewable energy sources. In Whatcom County, this means no new fossil fuel refineries, transshipment facilities, or certain types of other infrastructure expansions can be built, while existing refineries, terminals, and upgrade projects will also be subject to more rigorous environmental review and permitting processes.

What: A first-of-its-kind vote in the U.S. using local land-use code amendments to permanently prohibit new fossil fuel refineries, transshipment facilities, coal plants, piers, and wharfs in Whatcom County’s Cherry Point industrial zone.

Many cities across the U.S. have taken action to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions by limiting fossil fuel expansion and requiring fossil fuel free new commercial and residential buildings. But as one of the first refinery communities in the U.S. to pass these sorts of policies, Whatcom County’s action represents a groundbreaking move by a local jurisdiction to restrict the types of projects that can be built on its existing heavy industrial land.

When approved, these policies will offer refinery communities throughout the U.S. a roadmap for how they can enact stronger regulations to protect public health and vulnerable populations and local ecosystems, prevent the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and expedite the transition to a clean energy economy in an era accelerating climate change.

These policies are an important step in the right direction, but greater action by the County will be needed to address the pollution burden borne by local communities, in particular Lummi Nation, who live in close proximity to heavy industry and fossil fuel operations. Remedying local environmental injustices that have persisted for decades will need to be an ongoing campaign for concerned community members and elected officials.

When: Tuesday, July 27, at 6 p.m. PT / 9 p.m. ET

Where: Whatcom County Council virtual meeting. Members of the media are invited to watch the proceedings online.

The amendments were introduced on July 13, are included in the council agenda, and are available to view online.

Who: Whatcom County Council leaders and community members including Bellingham-based environmental nonprofit RE Sources and Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities movement, which for the past five years have worked to build public support for stronger policies alongside local community members and environmental advocates, county elected officials and staff, while consulting closely with labor unions, and fossil fuel industry representatives.

Why: These policies mark an inflection point for Pacific Northwest communities living near heavy industry and refineries, and are part of a national movement of local jurisdictions working to address climate change and push for renewable energy, while simultaneously protecting their communities and local environment from the impacts of tanker traffic and risks of oil spills, train derailments and explosions.

Local communities and governments often lack power to influence decisions about pipelines, trains, and ships that run through their towns, but local elected officials do have authority to decide what can be built in their communities, based on mandates to protect public safety and environmental health. During this process, environmental advocates also worked to find common ground with labor unions and common understanding with the fossil fuel industry where possible, encouraging a collective effort over time towards a transition to a clean energy economy.

More communities are following this example and exercising their regulatory authority to demand input, transparency, and stronger protections against the risks and hazards presented by fossil fuel expansion projects. Communities are pushing for similar permanent protections from fossil fuel expansions in Tacoma, Wash.

Background on Cherry Point

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has focused expansion efforts  on Cherry Point, a key deepwater port on the West Coast for exports. Over the years, refinery operations have regularly received major permits–including permits for two dangerous oil train transfer facilities — without the adequate public review needed to protect our local communities, the environment or climate.

The first oil refinery and pier, now owned by Phillips 66, started operating in 1954. A second pier and an aluminum smelter, owned by Alcoa’s Intalco Works, opened in 1966. The pier is now operated by Petrogras. A third pier and a second oil refinery, now owned by BP, began operating in 1971.

Whatcom County Council’s move to enact greater protections against the risks and impact of fossil fuel operations is the culmination of more than a decade of community mobilization, led beginning in 2011 by Lummi Nation. In response, RE Sources, Stand and other environmental advocates began organizing Salish Sea communities against the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a coal export terminal proposed for Cherry Point that would have been the largest in North America, as well as the expansion of crude oil shipments and rail transport.

Called Xwe’chi’eXen by the Lummi Nation, Cherry Point has been part of the Lummi Nation’s ancestral land, waters and fishing grounds since time immemorial. By 2016, the fossil fuel industry was targeting Cherry Point as an oil, gas, and coal waystation for exports to Asia and around the world. Estimates showed these projects would have resulted in a staggering amount of carbon pollution, and had they been built, they would have more than doubled the total amount of carbon emissions created in Washington state.

In 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the GPT terminal proposal because it would have interfered with the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights. The Whatcom County Council implemented a temporary moratorium on all new unrefined fossil fuel export facilities, which has been in place since. The coal terminal and moratorium have been fierce local political issues with significant electoral spending by both advocates and opponents in elections in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

For more information on Cherry Point, visit our initiative page and this background guide.

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