Council narrowly approves latest extension of Cherry Point crude oil export moratorium

In Cherry Point Industrial Area, Local Government, News, Whatcom County Council by CTNW News

For the ninth consecutive time, the Whatcom County Council has extended its interim moratorium on building crude oil exporting facilities in the Cherry Point industrial zone.

This latest extension of the temporary ban narrowly passed by a vote of 4–3 at the council’s virtual public hearing on June 2, 2020. Councilmembers Tyler Byrd, Ben Elenbaas and Kathy Kershner voted against it. This is the first time that the moratorium received three “no” votes since it was first adopted as an “emergency” ordinance in August 2016.

The moratorium means that any new projects which could increase exports of crude oil or other unrefined fossil fuels out of Cherry Point (CP) will not be permitted for another six months until the council can approve new land use rules for the area. The current rules do not explicitly prohibit unrefined fossil fuel export facilities, but they will be permanently prohibited under the proposed new Comprehensive Plan amendments.

The County’s effort to prevent crude oil exports began after Congress lifted a 40-year federal ban on crude exports in December 2015, which led to a sharp increase in 2016. Councilmembers were concerned that companies would rush to build new shipping terminals for exporting unrefined fossil fuels to Asia, or that the existing refineries at Cherry Point might be converted into crude oil export facilities, and that this would lead to more train traffic, oil spills, and accidents.

Cherry Point industries currently provide most of Whatcom County’s higher paying jobs, and some citizens were more concerned that the moratorium would create too much uncertainty for companies that want to get building permits, and send a signal that Whatcom County is an unfriendly place to do business.

More than 40 people joined the council’s June 2nd webinar – the preferred method for public hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic – to give their thoughts about the crude oil export moratorium.

Trevor Smith, member of the Laborers Union Local 292, asked the council not to extend the moratorium. He said the recent closure of the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter (about 700 jobs lost) is an example of what a loss of industries at Cherry Point will look like without a transition to other industries with comparable wages.

“Especially in these historically challenging times we are looking for solutions and alternatives that do not leave working families behind,” Smith said. “That is what we are looking for from you our elected leaders, and extending this moratorium is not the solution.”

Smith said Laborers 292 supports the new language added to this 9th extension which makes it publicly clear that the “Whatcom County Council supports the development of Renewable Fuels Facilities and Transshipment Facilities within the CP District.”

According to Planning Commission documents, the council worked with Cascadia Law Group (Environmental Attorneys in Seattle and Olympia) to develop the proposed Comprehensive Plan and Whatcom County Code amendments relating to fossil fuel and renewable fuel facilities in the Cherry Point Area.

On August 7, 2019, the council forwarded the proposed amendments to the county Planning Commission for review. Between September 2019 and February 2020, the commission met with industry and environmental group representatives and have made several changes to the proposed amendments, but their work sessions were halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judith Akins, chairperson of Mount Baker Group Sierra Club of Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan Counties, asked the council to continue the moratorium. She said the Planning Commission was expected to be done with their work by now but were halted by the pandemic. “We need to stay the course and not let the moratorium expire until the process is completed by the Planning Commission and the council.”

Birch Bay resident Dana Jenson spoke in support of the moratorium and asked the council to remain steadfast: “This moratorium is a small temporary step that helps us and the energy companies that share this beautiful territory with us to get ready for a permanent and urgently needed transition to a means of thriving that does not only take resources away from the planet, but brings resources to it.”

Andrew Gamble has been employed at Cherry Point for 14 years and he spoke against the moratorium. “The moratorium needlessly adds uncertainty in an already precarious business climate for the biggest economic driver for Whatcom County: Cherry Point,” Gamble said. “Cherry Point industries support the livelihood of hundreds of Whatcom County families – including mine.”

Edward Ury, Climate and Energy Policy Manager at ReSources for Sustainable Communities, described how the moratorium hasn’t stopped the existing local refineries from expanding, and how numerous expansions have happened over the four years it’s been in place. Ury noted that crude oil exporting without value-added processing brings very few benefits to the local area.

“I understand this topic is divisive, but when you really come down to the basics there is so much that we all agree on more than disagree in terms of basically what we want to see happen,” he said.

Ury told the council it is “routine and necessary” to continue the moratorium and he hopes this is the last time it needs to be extended. He assured that when the changes to the Comprehensive Plan are finished, it will give industries more certainty.

Councilmembers Ben Elenbaas and Kathy Kershner were elected to the council last Fall and both made it clear from the beginning that they would vote against the moratorium.

During the virtual public hearing, Elenbaas said the energy companies that currently do business at Cherry Point are going to lead the renewable energy transition, but the moratorium will push them away.

“Why are we not doing everything we can to facilitate their businesses flourishing here providing for our community the way they have they have for decades so that they can lead that green energy transition that we all talk about and would like to see so much,” Elenbaas asked.

“We don’t need the moratorium. We never have. It’s a problem that was generated because of some people’s – I don’t know why – misunderstanding, I’ll call it a misunderstanding of what it takes to live and produce fuel,” he said. “This was never needed, we don’t need it now, and now has never been a better time to fix it.”

Elenbaas made several proposals to remove language from the ordinance imposing the latest moratorium extension, including references to crude oil train accidents and a clause that says the moratorium is “necessary for the protection for public health and safety.” All of Elenbaas’s proposals failed 3–4.

The County Planning Commission plans to have a virtual meeting on June 25 to work on the Comp Plan amendments. This will be followed by at least one more work session and a public hearing. Then if the County Council approves the new amendments, crude oil export facilities will be prohibited by code, and the need for an interim moratorium will come to an end.

Video of the full June 2, 2020 Whatcom County Council virtual public hearing

written by Mike Curtiss