After a year of work the Whatcom County Planning Commission has finished making its changes to the proposed new development rules related to crude oil exports at the Cherry Point Industrial Area.
The commission’s final changes are supported by the environmental group RE Sources and Cherry Point industry representatives, and were approved by the commission after an online public hearing on August 13, 2020. The amendments will now go back to the County Council.
The approval was long-awaited. Since 2016, the County Council has been working on a Comprehensive Plan update that will prevent companies at Cherry Point from building new shipping terminals for the purpose of exporting unrefined fossil fuels. To buy time to write this update, the council passed a controversial moratorium on crude oil export facilities in August 2016 – and has since extended that moratorium 9 times. The council approved its version of the amendments in August 2019 and passed it on to the Planning Commission for review, and the commission’s work on the amendments has been set back nearly 4 months due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
The proposed rules would prohibit new fossil fuel refineries and fossil fuel transshipment facilities; new piers, docks or wharves; and coal-fired power plants at Cherry Point. They would prohibit converting renewable fuel refineries or renewable fuel transshipment facilities into fossil fuel facilities except under certain circumstances. The new rules would also require a conditional use permit for expansions of existing fossil fuel refineries and fossil fuel transshipment terminals.
During the Aug. 13 online public hearing Eddy Ury, Climate and Energy Policy Manager at RE Sources, reminded the commission that transshipment of unrefined fuels would bring hazards to local communities and the environment without the economic benefit of supporting the refineries and the jobs therein.
“If we’re shipping fuels without refining them, that’s a concern,” he said. “Case in point: a couple of weeks ago we saw an example in Northern California where an oil refinery announced it would be closing and just using the terminal to ship crude oil and petroleum without even refining it – this is a real threat.”
Matt Aamot from Whatcom County Planning and Development Services described some of the changes that the Planning Commission has made to the County Council’s proposed amendments. The council wanted to require a conditional use permit for expansions of existing fossil fuel and renewable fuel facilities. The Planning Commission’s changes will allow expansions of renewable fuel refineries and transshipment facilities as a permitted use, but will keep the conditional use permit requirement for expansions of fossil fuel facilities.
The County Council’s proposed amendments would require analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for refineries and transshipment facilities by adding provisions to both the zoning code and the county’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) environmental checklist. The Planning Commission removed the greenhouse gas analysis requirements from the zoning code but will include them in the SEPA procedures.
One of the final changes submitted by RE Sources and Industry would clarify that the prohibition of new fossil fuel transshipment facilities does not prohibit certain movement of petroleum products such as inter-refinery shipments, transfers during emergencies and transfers during turn-arounds or maintenance periods.
Petrogas representative Andrew Gamble said his company appreciates the chance to work with RE Sources and the other Cherry Point industries in creating the final draft, and asked the commission to incorporate it into their final recommendations to the County Council. He reminded the commission that Cherry Point is the economic foundation of Whatcom County supporting thousands of jobs and paying hundreds-of-millions of dollars in local taxes.
“With the current state of the economy in Whatcom County, the high degree of uncertainty and the demonstrable economic benefit that Cherry Point provides, we question the timing of the monumental changes in the amendments for such a vital economic sector.”
Gamble said that while the final version of the amendments may not reflect all of his company’s preferred changes, it “is a better and more workable version than was originally proposed.”
The Whatcom County Council will look at the final draft of the Planning Commission’s changes when it comes back into session this fall. The council holds its next meeting Sept. 15, 2020.
Written by Mike Curtiss