Refocusing the Narrative
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
REFOCUSING THE NARRATIVE: King County Council this week approved a six-month moratorium on building or expanding major fossil-fuel infrastructure, joining other local governments in the Northwest with similar measures that aim to use local zoning laws to restrict fossil-fuel pipelines, storage facilities and other infrastructure. In this effort, Whatcom County appears to be paving the way.
The King County moratorium disallows permitting for fossil-fuel projects in unincorporated King County and directs the county executive’s office to produce a survey of existing facilities, study those facilities’ impacts on communities, analyze the existing regulations that apply to them, recommend changes to regulations and permitting, and evaluate county-owned facilities for health impacts.
The Seattle Times reports the moratorium is limited, and does not disallow existing infrastructure or directly address rail lines or pipelines, which are regulated by the federal government.
That’s because the powers of local governments over land use and the protection of human health and safety are fairly limited over projects within federal jurisdiction. But just because those powers are limited, does that mean they should not be strengthened and enforced to their fullest?
That’s been the question that has wracked Whatcom County Council for many months as that legislative body has worked through a series of amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan that pertain to the heavy industrial zone at Cherry Point.
This week Council approved their sixth extension of their own version of a 2016 moratorium similar to that of King County on the acceptance and processing of applications and permits for new or expanded facilities at Cherry Point related to the shipment of unrefined, unprocessed fossil fuels. The moratorium prevents projects from being permitted under the older rules while new rules are being drafted.
“The King County moratorium is in many ways modeled on Whatcom County,” observed Alex Ramel, the Extreme Oil field director for Stand.Earth. “They are jumping on board and doing something similar.”
As part of their own deliberative process, last year the Whatcom County Council sought legal guidance from consultants at the Cascade Law Group that laid out the strategies local governments might employ to limit the scope or impacts of such projects. Council then began to discuss how to best incorporate these strategies.
A series of council vacancies, replacements, elections and new memberships have slowed this work, shifted emphasis, and even changed pluralities of support for the amendments. In short, County Council has begun to lose the thread of their own narrative, the purpose underlying their work.
In mid-January, Council member Todd Donovan introduced a refocused proposal that would require a conditional use permit for all new fossil-fuel facilities at Cherry Point, not just those unrefined fossil-fuel facilities that were previously under discussion.
Donovan’s changes reflect the advice of Cascade Law Group that county policies can’t pick and choose among preferred specific fossil-fuel products or processes, but need to focus more broadly overall on health and safety impacts, and mitigation of these large-scale projects. The revisions invites a broader discussion of the definition of a fossil-fuel facility, what sorts of projects should receive a pass and which should be subject to additional review.
The proposed changes drew immediate alarm from Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, who issued a memo to Council warning the changes “if adopted into law, would have a significant impact on operations of our existing industries at Cherry Point. In practice, this proposal (if lawful, which I would challenge) would deal what I would consider a knockout punch to future capital repair and maintenance projects at the refineries, notwithstanding any consideration of major renovation projects.”
The proposal, which the executive believes could add months if not years to permit timelines, along with adding substantial cost and uncertainty for the applicant, “is in my opinion a true job killer,” Louws wrote.
Council this week took the unusual step of calling back for a reconsideration Donovan’s submittal in a special meeting of the council’s Committee of the Whole. At issue was an attempt to clarify and resolve matters planners believed were in conflict between recent amendments and those the council were at work on the fall.
“The letter of the County Executive and an email from the Planning and Development Services Director showed that the proceedings from October and the proceedings from January were not consistent. They were not matching,” Council member Satpal Sidhu summarized. “We have been working on this for almost two years, and I would like to see this resolved as soon as possible.
“But,” he added, “this is an effort to hear back from Cascade Law that what we are proposing, how valid is that? Before we send it out to the planning commission, as well as industry and other stakeholders, before it comes back to the council. If there are some fundamental flaws, we should recognize them now rather than later.”
Some on Council used the opportunity to scold the process for a lack of transparency—but those remarks came from the members who’ve been displeased by the entire proceeding and oppose the essence of what other policymakers seek from these changes, an instrument to potentially limit certain varieties of industry at Cherry Point. As Donovan pointed out, a clarification or request to staff on paper is no less transparent than when it is issued verbally, and the verbal requests occur in council committees with regularity.
“This policy has had more public discussion, more public consideration, more public comment than anything I have ever been part of in county government,” Ramel observed. “There have been people commenting on this, or pieces of this, at nearly every County Council meeting for going on three years.”
Time to move forward, and make the goals of the moratorium durable, regional land-use policy.