Whatcom County is poised to become a national leader in protecting communities from the impacts of fossil fuel expansion.
After years of resisting proposed fossil fuel export projects, oil train expansions and worrying about rumors of industry’s planned oil pipelines, gas pipelines and propane train expansions, the Cherry Point ordinance is nearing the finish line. As these polishing touches are put on the policy, we’re paying attention – big oil is working to water it down every chance they get.
A temporary moratorium on unrefined fossil fuel transhipment projects was passed in 2016 to give our community time to update the comprehensive plan, do the legal research, and advance these permanent protections. It has been renewed every six months since then, each time reaffirming the importance of this project. These policies have been a major focus of elections in Whatcom County, each time the voters returning those who have championed protection for our community.
I hope you will join me in reaffirming the importance of strong protections at Cherry Point by signing this petition.
Interested in the policy details? I invite you to keep reading to learn what exactly we’re asking of Whatcom County’s leadership.
County Council and the Planning Commission have already settled on a number of important provisions that are incorporated in the working draft Cherry Point ordinance. We are pleased that the following additions have been included and we want to remind policy makers of their importance:
- Prohibit new fossil fuel refineries. Expansion of fossil fuel refining –at a time when we need to reduce fossil fuel use– is a step toward climate chaos. Existing facilities need to be regulated differently, but new fossil fuel facilities should be prevented.
- Prohibit new piers, docks and wharfs. There are three existing piers at Cherry Point. For a number of years, a fourth pier had been anticipated in local and state plans and codes. The most recent proposed use for that pier would have been 48 million metric tons of coal export per year. In 2016, the proposed use of the pier was determined by the Army Corps of Engineers to be a violation of the Lummi’s treaty protected fishing rights. Shortly after that, Washington Department of Natural Resources extended marine resource area protections to the entire area. Prohibiting new piers, docks and wharfs will bring our local code into alignment with these state and federal rules.
- Prohibit new fossil fuel transhipment facilities. Transfering unrefined fossil fuel from pipelines or trains onto ships for export would add very little to our local economy and would increase our local spill risk, pollution, and contribute to climate change. Exporting crude oil would also put local jobs at the refineries at risk. The definition of transhipment needs to be carefully crafted as is discussed below.
- Require conditional use permits for fossil facility expansion projects. Conditional use permits (CUPs) include mandatory public notice of the permit application and would allow the County to put conditions on the project to limit the impact on public health and safety. CUPs are required all the time by local governments for developments that may have unique impacts that should be thoughtfully examined. For example, most cities require a conditional use permit to build a daycare facility in a residential neighborhood. While work still needs to be done to ensure that all expansion projects are included, we applaud this requirement in general.
- Strengthen and clarify the SEPA processes and rules for fossil fuel facility expansions and renewable fuel facilities. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) creates a process for evaluating whether a project will have serious environmental impacts. The SEPA process is administered by the local government. In the past, in Whatcom County and other communities facing fossil fuel expansion projects, the details of how these impacts are evaluated has been debated. This has led to some legal appeals and drawn out court battles about whether the evaluation was done right. By setting a clear standard and a high bar, Whatcom County can be confident that we are protecting our community. And, at the same time, companies will know what’s expected. If they can meet the standard, they will have more confidence to make the investment. If they can’t or won’t meet the standards, it’s better for everyone to know that at the beginning.
While the current draft is a big improvement over the uncertainty and risk of the status quo, the final result should be even better. We are urging the County Council and Planning Commission to adopt the following improvements to the protections in the draft Cherry Point Ordinance:
- Any fossil fuel facility expansions or increases in storage capacity should require a conditional use permit. The current draft sets a threshold of 10,000 barrels per day increase in capacity or 200,000 barrels increase in storage. To give you a sense of scale, 10,000 barrels per day would be about a 10% increase in scale for the Ferndale Refinery. Projects smaller than that would be allowed as a permitted use and would be subject to much lower levels of scrutiny. Expansion of fossil fuel production is the wrong direction for our climate and for our community. To avoid climate catastrophe we must drastically reduce fossil fuel usage – doing so requires that we stop increasing production of fossil fuels. Similarly, there has been a clear call to prevent increases in vessel traffic in the Salish Sea until a carrying capacity analysis has been conducted. We acknowledge that there may need to be reasonable exceptions to this principle, but those exceptions should be made with the public notice and scrutiny that comes with a conditional use permit. Maintenance and safety upgrades that do not expand capacity for storage or processing should be considered permitted uses. The Planning Commission has worked closely with industry to develop a list of these kinds of projects which has been included in the proposed revisions at 20.68.068.
- Greenhouse gas emissions, including lifecycle emissions, should be evaluated under SEPA using rigorous, uniform standards. Predicting lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from a project is complicated and is an area that has been the source of significant legal dispute in other communities. For example, Stand.earth, RE Sources and a number of other partners appealed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in Skagit County, where the refinery attempted to suggest that the lifecycle emissions from producing plastic chemical precursors and exporting them to Asia were net negative. A proposed methanol refinery in Kalama and a proposed LNG storage facility in Tacoma are also both caught up in legal appeals because parties didn’t follow a uniform standard for quantifying emissions. It’s important that the County’s permitting staff have a clear set of rules to follow that both industry and community understand and can be applied evenly. The GREET Model is a tool that was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory to remove this guesswork and uncertainty. Using this model would provide a consistent and accurate answer. The company can know what the rules are before the project is proposed. The county should decide now which tool they will use and how, rather than wait until another proposal comes along and then make up and answer under pressure.
- Any pollution trading allowed through SEPA must not be double counted, should be local clean energy or energy efficiency projects, and should require prevailing wage and apprenticeship utilization standards. The draft allows for projects with significant climate pollution, identified through SEPA, to be able to buy offsets. Emissions offsets are an opportunity to allow some projects to move forward as long as they reduce pollution somewhere else. Offsets are a good win-win opportunity if they are done carefully, but the current draft simply doesn’t meet the standard.
- Offsets should be “additional”: Additional in this context means that the projects wouldn’t have otherwise have happened without the support of the offset money. It avoids double counting and is standard in any legal offset agreement. This requirement was in an earlier draft and was deleted during the Planning Commission review. We think this was a mistake.
- Offsets should be local or regional: As written, the current draft would allow offset projects to be completed anywhere in the world. Accountability is important and our ability to know that a project is working is in part dependent on being able to observe it. These projects are also an important way to grow our economy in the direction of a clean energy future. The policy should express a preference for local or regional projects.
- Offsets should be energy efficiency or clean energy only: Some emissions offsets are forest preservation, tree planting, or soil conservation. While these are important ways we can reduce climate pollution, successfully and accurately evaluating these kinds of offsets is a complicated, time consuming, long-term task. There are too many opportunities for errors in this kind of evaluation, and so we suggest only using clean energy or energy efficiency projects that are much more easily quantified and are more likely to be consistently effective.
- Offsets should require prevailing wage and apprenticeship utilization standards: Allowing these offsets is an important commitment by Whatcom County to encourage investment in the clean energy economy. We owe it to our workers to make these investments in the new economy in a way that ensures these will be good jobs going forward. Prevailing wage standards ensure that low bid contracts are not a race to the bottom for wages. And apprenticeship utilization is a smart way to make sure that we are continually developing new opportunities to build the workforce.
- “Value added” must be narrowly defined to prevent raw fuel exports. Transhipment facilities are prevented by the draft ordinance. That means the definition of transhipment is pretty important. A proposal at the Planning Commission has been to define this based on “value added” to commodities. The Western States Petroleum Association has suggested a broad definition of “value added” that would allow many fossil fuel exports. Simply changing the vapor pressure, compressing or liquifying gases, or otherwise lightly refining the products should not be considered value added for these purposes. We urge the definition of “value added” to be narrow to exclude things like separation of light ends of crude oil or changes in temperature and pressure which add very little value and would provide few, if any, local jobs.
- Whatcom County should insist that proposed projects be consistent with federal laws and treaties. The proposed coal terminal cost our community thousands of hours of work, and immeasurable energy, time and expense while the county Planning Department evaluated a proposed project that was later determined to be a clear violation of federally enforced treaty rights. Let’s not repeat that mistake. The sentence “It is the County’s policy to ensure applicants provide verifiable documentation of consistency with federal and state laws regarding treaty rights, clean water rights (both water quality and water quantity), and endangered species protection such as through attaining permits or conducting consultations” (16.08.160F.2(c)) was deleted by the Planning Commission and should be restored.
- Changes in use at fossil fuel facilities from previously permitted uses should require new permits. We need rules to address situations that occur when a fossil fuel facility has applied for and received a permit for a facility to conduct one kind of activity, and then they change what they are using it for to a different activity with a different impact. Under the current draft, piecemeal upgrades can occur without substantive review of these impacts. Several small changes can add up, and, over time, fundamentally alter the operations of the facility. RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has suggested this language, which is appropriate and would address the problem: “A change of use occurs when a facility is altering its primary operational purpose, deviating from what was described in the original permit and SEPA applications, such that new foreseeable adverse impacts arise. A conditional use permit will be required for changes of use of existing structures in addition to any other required permits or constructions.”
- Fossil fuel facility expansions that increase dangerous materials or that require transportation of dangerous materials through the community should demonstrate that there is sufficient insurance held by the project proponent or by the transportation partners that they will employ. Fossil fuel facility expansion projects that increase the transport of dangerous materials are a huge concern – much of the conversation around coal and oil trains, oil shipping, etc. has focused on the risk of an accident while moving the product either to or from the facility. These companies want us to believe that those risks are taken by the shipping companies or the railroads, so they can’t be held accountable. But if, for example, an oil train terminal isn’t expanded, there won’t be as many oil trains coming into our community. If we don’t increase storage capacity for transhipment, there will be fewer ships and less spill risk. And the companies that build those facilities, have to sign contracts with the companies transporting these projects. Our community has a right to insist that if the oil company is going to get our permission to expand their facility in a way that will increase risk of accidents, that they must only contract for transport with companies that have adequate risk protection in place. The Planning Commission deleted most of the content in this section because it was viewed as outside of their field of expertise. We urge that these provisions be included. This shouldn’t be controversial. After all, if the risks are low, insurance should be affordable.
Once these changes are in place, Whatcom County will have a policy that sets a national standard for protecting local jobs, our local environment, and our climate.