In historic vote, Whatcom County approves landmark policy to regulate fossil fuel industry, protect Salish Sea

County becomes one of the first refinery communities in the U.S. to permanently prohibit new fossil fuel refineries, piers, transshipment facilities. | July 27, 2021

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BELLINGHAM, Wash. — On July 27, the Whatcom County Council unanimously passed permanent land-use policies prohibiting new fossil fuel refineries, coal plants, transshipment facilities, piers, and wharfs in the Cherry Point industrial zone in northwest 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 held a public hearing before approving these policies.

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 upgrade projects at existing refineries and terminals will also be subject to more rigorous environmental review and permitting processes. Upgrades that reduce pollution and improve safety will still be allowed if they meet these improved standards.

“Whatcom County residents are now safer from threats like increased oil train traffic or more polluting projects at existing refineries,” said Whatcom County Councillor Todd Donovan. “When people ask local leaders to address their concerns, this is how it should be done — with input from all affected communities and industries, but without watering down the solutions that are most protective of public safety, the climate, and our waterways.”

Five years ago community members, following the leadership of Lummi Nation, helped prevent a massive coal export terminal proposed at Cherry Point. Since then, Bellingham-based environmental nonprofit RE Sources and’s SAFE Cities movement 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.

“This is a landmark victory for the local communities who have stood up and held firm for over a decade to protect the climate, the Salish Sea and their own health and safety from risky and reckless fossil fuel expansion projects,” said Shannon Wright, executive director for RE Sources. “There’s more to be done, including addressing the pollution burden borne by local communities, in particular Lummi Nation, who live in close proximity to existing heavy industry and fossil fuel operations, and continuing to counter the threat of increased vessel traffic across the region.”

Many cities across the U.S. have taken action to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions by limiting fossil fuel expansion and requiring new commercial and residential buildings to be fossil fuel-free. 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.

These policies 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 of accelerating climate change.

“For too long, the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to cloak its infrastructure and expansion projects in an air of inevitability,” said SAFE Cities Campaign Director Matt Krogh. “It has used this to diminish local communities’ concerns and then dismiss or ignore their voices. Whatcom County’s new, permanent policy is a clear signal that those days are over. Local communities and their elected officials do have the power to decide what gets built near their homes, schools, and businesses. Whatcom County’s policy is a blueprint that any community, including refinery communities, can use to take action to stop fossil fuel expansion.”

While these policies are an important step in the right direction, 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.

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 coordinate with labor unions and develop shared 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. These waters, which include the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, are of critical ecological importance. They are home to an array of wildlife, including herring, a key feedstock for iconic salmon, which are a primary food source for endangered Southern Resident orca.

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.


About RE Sources

Founded in Bellingham Washington in 1982, RE Sources is a nonprofit organization working to protect our climate, as well as the environment and communities of the central Salish Sea region. We catalyze community action to build a lasting legacy for all of us — clean water, protected shorelines, an end to dangerous fossil fuel projects, and recovery for orcas and salmon.

We are a team of trusted and time-tested environmental advocates, educators and scientists. RE Sources gives people practical ways to make a real difference for the planet, from passing stronger laws that protect the environment and empowering youth voices, to holding corporate polluters accountable and reducing waste. We do this through smart policy, grassroots mobilization, hands-on science and environmental education.

More about SAFE Cities

SAFE Cities is a growing movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking clean energy solutions to ensure a just transition. Already dozens of cities and counties across the US – and several more around the globe – have passed concrete policies to keep their communities SAFE from fossil fuels, build renewable energy infrastructure, and create good, long-term jobs.

The SAFE Cities movement’s focus diverges from other “sometimes fluff” policies like climate emergency declarations, pledges to support the Paris Agreement, or emissions reduction strategies that are too weak to accomplish targets. Instead, SAFE Cities empowers local governments to leverage their existing regulatory authority (like land-use codes) to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry in their communities.