Whatcom County, WA proposes groundbreaking policies to protect community by limiting growth of fossil fuel projects

January 3, 2019

Ordinance would safeguard health of local community from harm caused by fossil fuel expansion projects while also protecting industry workers, climate, and economy

The leaders of a small county in northwest Washington State are taking bold action in 2019 to restrict growth of dirty fossil fuel projects in their community while safeguarding industry workers, the climate, and the economy — a move that could be mirrored by local governments across the U.S. under siege from fossil fuel expansion proposals in an era of dire climate change threats.

This January, Whatcom County Councilmember Todd Donovan is introducing an ordinance advancing a comprehensive approach for the county to preempt future threats to community health and local air, water, and fishing resources caused by fossil fuel expansion projects. County Council members have worked toward this ordinance since 2016, when they recognized gaps in the county’s existing fossil fuel regulations, put a temporary moratorium on new proposals, and commissioned a legal study. 

Stand.earth, which supported the county’s temporary moratorium on new unrefined fossil fuel projects and the county’s Comprehensive Plan updates, helped draft the new ordinance.

From British Columbia to California, local communities have been under siege for the past decade by an oil and gas industry seeking to turn the West Coast into a transportation corridor for dirty fossil fuels — without regard for local impacts on air, water, or even public safety.  

When approved, the ordinance will implement county policies adopted last year to require conditional use permits and environmental impact statements for any future development and expansions at Cherry Point, the county’s primary heavy industrial area that includes two refineries, a propane export facility, heavy rail lines, oil and gas pipelines, and a deepwater port. 

The ordinance requires a more careful review of the fossil fuel industry’s heavy impact on the local environment without singling out any particular product — with the exception of the policy’s intention to ban coal storage, because of previous extensive research into the serious health impacts, water pollution, and damage to the climate. 

West Coast communities under siege

From British Columbia to California, local communities have been under siege for the past decade by an oil and gas industry seeking to turn the West Coast into a transportation corridor for dirty fossil fuels — without regard for local impacts on air, water, or even public safety. 

Some of these fossil fuel projects led to dramatic expansion of explosive oil trains leading to several accidents in the Pacific Northwest, including a fiery derailment along the Columbia River. Other proposed projects would increase oil tanker traffic, risking spills and disrupting fisheries and endangered orca habitat in the Salish Sea. The possibility of crude oil export has become a major concern for industry workers worried about refineries turning into export facilities while their jobs are sent overseas. 

Like many West Coast communities who banded together in the “Thin Green Line” to fight this onslaught of fossil fuel proposals, Whatcom County residents spent the last eight years fighting coal export proposals, pipeline expansion proposals, the piecemeal growth of area refineries, and increases in oil and propane trains rolling through their communities.

Facing each of these fossil fuel proposals has often required protracted legal battles, public opposition campaigns, and an uncertain regulatory process that time and again leans heavily in favor of the fossil fuel industry. 

Whatcom County Council takes action

In 2016, in the midst of these fossil fuel fights, the Whatcom County Council smartly recognized gaps in existing policies and regulations and put a temporary moratorium on any new proposals for unrefined fossil fuel projects. It commissioned a legal opinion on appropriate regulatory tools that protect the local environment, without interfering with national regulations. 

Since then, the County Council has worked to develop permanent rules, slogging through a cumbersome editing process. Councilmember Donovan’s proposed ordinance consolidates and expands on the best ideas from the council’s work to date, including:

  • Saying “no” to new bulk coal projects.
  • Creating a rigorous set of standards for disclosing the impacts of new fossil fuel projects, including requiring conditional use permits and comprehensive environmental impact statements.
  • Giving decisionmakers the tools to say “no” to projects that would irreparably harm the climate, local fisheries, and local communities, while preserving the flexibility to approve genuine improvements or maintenance in existing refinery operations.
  • When passed, eliminating the need for a temporary moratorium, allowing the community and industry to move forward with clearly defined rules that everyone can follow equally.  

Whatcom County’s ordinance would require each fossil fuel proposal to be reviewed on a case by case basis. Those reviews would give county leaders the ability to:

  Turn coal terminals away at the door.

 Block crude oil transhipment proposals that would harm local fisheries, orcas and workers.

 Hold new fracked gas projects and petrochemical expansions to an extremely high standard that protects communities from pollution risks.

 Examine renewable diesel or biofuel projects on the specific merits, because the details matter a lot. 

 Allow projects that maintain existing refinery systems, or upgrade to cleaner or more efficiency equipment.

Unlike prior proposals considered in other communities, the proposed ordinance does not ban fossil fuel activity, does not discriminate against particular products, and does not curtail existing enterprises. It provides a clear pathway to the fossil fuel industry for permitting and environmental review. It also provides planners and local community members adequate tools for more detailed environmental review, including policies that require the protection of the Salish Sea, including the crippled Cherry Point herring stock and endangered Southern Resident orca population.

A dire climate change threat

The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report outlines the need to keep global climate change to a 1.5 degree future. To achieve these science-driven goals, local governments must find ways to say no new fossil fuel infrastructure and transition rapidly to clean energy alternatives. 

Whatcom County’s bold action doesn’t get us all the way there, but it does take critical steps in the right direction, giving local decision makers the tools needed to require polluters to quantify their pollution so that the community can make a fully informed decision about the risks. 

The fossil fuel industry will almost certainly oppose this ordinance, to protect the the ease of permitting it has enjoyed since the 1950s. But other local governments are taking similar action, and we can win. 

The City Council in Portland, Oregon banned bulk fossil fuel infrastructure within the city in 2017, and a recent court decision upheld that ban. The City Council in Baltimore, Maryland prohibited crude oil train terminals through the city’s zoning code in 2016. Leaders in Tacoma, Washington passed a temporary measure to limit new fossil fuel infrastructure in 2018 while working through permanent updates to its tideflats industrial area plan, and in January 2019, leaders in King County, Washington are planning to propose a similar set of measures to prohibit major new fossil fuel infrastructure.

In today’s era of climate change, bold leaders in Whatcom County and across the U.S. are ready to stand up and protect their communities.