For the eighth time, the Whatcom County Council has extended a moratorium on new or expanded crude oil exporting facilities in the Cherry Point Industrial Zone — home to some of the county’s biggest employers. Any new projects that would increase exports of crude oil or other unrefined fossil fuels will not be permitted for another six-months until the council can pass new development rules for the area.
The county council held a public hearing on an ordinance for this latest extension at its meeting on Dec. 3, 2019, and once again dozens of people stood up and shared their concerns about jobs, public safety and the environment. The “emergency” interim moratorium prohibits any building or development that would be used to increase shipments of unrefined fossil fuels not to be processed at Cherry Point.
Cherry Point is currently the site of BP and Phillips 66 refineries as well as Alcoa’s Intalco aluminum smelter and many smaller industrial businesses. These interim measures are intended to prevent the refineries from receiving building permits for future crude oil export shipping facilities before the Planning Commission has a chance to complete an updated Comprehensive Plan that would basically ban them completely.
This effort to stop fossil fuel exports at Cherry Point started in August 2016 over concerns of accidents involving crude oil trains. That was two months after a Union Pacific oil train crashed in the Columbia River Gorge on its way to Tacoma, spilling 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil and starting a major fire. Since then, the debate over Cherry Point has grown to include broader concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Most of the higher paying jobs currently in Whatcom County are due to jobs that are provided from industries at Cherry Point, and as a result the area has a major impact on the health of our local economy. A 2019 study by The Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University finds that the Cherry Point Industrial Zone is home to at least 3,320 jobs — roughly 3.75 percent of all jobs in the county — and directly or indirectly supports 11.2 percent of all the jobs in the county. Jobs at Cherry Point have an average wage of $110,690. That’s 243 percent more than the average job in Whatcom County. The study finds that the majority of these jobs are at the refineries, which have significantly higher wages than other industries in the County. A loss of 50 jobs in the Petroleum manufacturing industry would result in the loss of 174 jobs throughout Whatcom County.
The public hearing for this moratorium extension lasted little over an hour and a half, and lacked some of the usual fire and fury seen at hearings for the prior extensions. Most commenters also thanked Councilmember Barbara Brenner for her 28 years of service as this would be her last meeting. Brenner announced in May that she would not be seeking re-election.
During the public hearing, Pam Brady from BP Cherry Point urged the council to reject this extension of the fossil fuel export moratorium, calling it “illegal” and an “inappropriate constraint on the businesses of Whatcom County.” She said BP is an important contributor to the community and has been since 1971, and that BP is one of the largest taxpayers in Whatcom County. Brady said she appreciates the recent efforts by the Planning Commission to engage with industry to develop permanent building regulations “that will achieve our collective environmental and safety objectives while also ensuring economic the long term economic well being of the county.”
“While there is much work to be done,” Brady said, “we are hopeful that industry and the county can continue a collaborative and constructive dialog in the months and years ahead.”
Alex Ramel, of STAND.EARTH, an environmental organizer and former President of the Kulshan Community Land Trust, urged the council to continue the moratorium. Ramel also noted recent progress made by the Planning Commission working with industries to develop permanent building regulations for Cherry Point. Ramel said there are now some important areas of agreement. Ramel is well known for his advocacy to shut down all fossil fuel operations in Whatcom County and threats to local businesses who advocate for the industries and businesses at Cherry Point.
“Our community seems by-and-large to agree that there should not be a fourth pier at Cherry Point,” he claimed. “We seem to agree that trans shipment of fossil fuels not refined in our community isn’t a good use for our industrial land and it’s not good for the Salish Sea. We seem to agree that there shouldn’t be new refineries for fossil fuels at Cherry Point.“
Ramel said the moratorium has been important for engaging the community and starting a dialog about the future of Cherry Point. “The moratorium has done a good job of creating the space for that discussion,” he said.
Greg Erickson, 50 year employee at Intalco and member of Machinists Union Local 2379, spoke against the extension: “More applications and permits would make it much harder for existing industries and new industries to survive.” He said Whatcom County needs responsible growth at Cherry Point which would provide family-wage jobs, a tax base for the schools, roads, and emergency services, and help the less fortunate in the community.
Eddy Ury, Clean Energy Program Manager at ReSources for Sustainable Communities, supported the extension and said, “the Planning Review process for writing permanent development rules for Cherry Point has been moving slowly.” Ury said, “he’s happy to see industry proactively engaging in the process and coming to the table with constructive alternatives to policy.” He said, “it’s a shame that the export moratorium has to be extended again, but numerous projects have been permitted at the refineries while the moratorium has been in place.” And Ury said, “the concern that jobs would be lost at Cherry Point so far has not come to fruition.“
Councilmember Brenner said she agrees with a lot of the public comments on both sides of the issue. She doesn’t want to see unrefined fossil fuels shipped out of Cherry Point to Asia because the refineries there do a “lousy job” and create more pollution. “I think the refineries we have here are the best in the world, not just in Whatcom County but in the world,” she said. “And the fact that they’re here refining product means that that unrefined stuff isn’t going over to Asia which I don’t want it to.“
Brenner said she also doesn’t want to see Whatcom County lose the refineries by making too many regulations. “Especially the conditional use permits and stuff — that is the most subjective type of permit I’ve ever known — if we keep doing that stuff with refineries, then we are going to lose them.“
Brenner added that she wants to see Whatcom County to keep its diversity. “I don’t want to see us turn into a community of all retirees and college students,” she said.
Councilmember Tyler Byrd said that a lot of people on both sides of this issue share the same message: both sides say they don’t want crude oil exports and both sides say they want to keep jobs here. He said the polarized nature of this issue has made it hard to have an honest conversation and get to understand the other side. The council never took the time to talk with both sides and inform themselves, Byrd confessed. “Instead we’ve kind of muddled through this with some pretty poor process and some really horrible communication.”
The Planning Commission has only been dealing with this issue since September, and Byrd said they’re doing a terrific job listening to both sides as they develop permanent building regulations for Cherry Point. “I’m hoping that when this comes back to us,” he concluded, “we’ll actually listen to the feedback and we’ll hear what’s trying to be said, and we wont just go back to what we had and shove things through that we want, but that we’ll actually listen and educate ourselves when this moves forward.“
The moratorium extension passed by a vote of 5–2 with Brenner and Byrd opposed.
written by Mike Curtiss for Common Threads NW