Wednesday, April 10, 2019
DRAGGED: After a protracted delay and some gratuitous slow-walking by the county administration, Whatcom County Council this week formalized their agreement to work with an environmental law group to develop amendments to the comprehensive plan for the Cherry Point industrial zone.
Council in January issued their sixth extension of their moratorium on new unrefined fossil fuel export projects at Cherry Point while they review legal ways the county may attempt to limit the negative impacts from crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases, and natural gas transshipments. They were not eager to issue a seventh extension a few months hence without moving aspirations into actuality. Part of that progress involves crafting local land-use regulations that can stand up to judicial review, and to that end they also that evening approved a resolution to seek the legal expertise of Cascadia Law Group, requesting that the executive authorize and release $40,000 of the funds originally established for this legal consultation in the county’s 2017 budget.
Their action in January drew a rebuke from County Executive Jack Louws, who characterized limits on Cherry Point as “a true job killer.” Moving slowly to authorize a budget request that was well within the purview of the county’s legislative body to make, Louws doubled down on the characterization in a memo in March.
“I am not pleased with the process that Council has taken in reviewing the Cherry Point land-use issues,” Louws commented. “This began with the enactment of the interim emergency moratorium and then continued with the content of the first ordinance, which I believe is flawed and legally suspect.
“I am also concerned,” he continued, “with Council’s commitment to a transparent review of these issues. The community expects and deserves that. I initially signed the Cascadia Law Group contract, back in 2017, because I thought their work, based on the contracted scope of work, and the anticipated public process, was going to provide the community a better understanding of the legal and policy framework that the County Council was interested in pursuing.”
Louws complained of changes to comp plan and land-use code “when Council’s proposed policy seems to change from one meeting to the next.” The reality is, their approach and goals are consistent; while the very subject of fossil fuel exports morphs in real-time from changes in federal policy and industry practices.
As to the “flawed and legally suspect” aspects of their proposed comp plan amendments, that is exactly the concern Council’s desire for review by Cascadia Law Group is intended to address. Prior to Council’s request for outside assistance, county Planning and Legal had made no forward momentum on these questions since October of last year.
Meanwhile, the industry is evolving rapidly. Oil train shipments have increased substantially over the past few years, in part owing to delays in building the big new export pipelines that the oil industry wants.
Exports of Canadian crude oil by rail to the United States jumped 42 percent in the first six months of 2018, hitting an all-time record 204,558 barrels per day in June, according to the latest data available from Canada’s National Energy Board. The volume figure equals 340 or so tank car loads per day—with a great deal of that product bound for refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
Analysts expect the number of Canadian oil trains operating in the United States to double again by the end of 2019 “and, in fact, the government of Alberta is planning to buy its own railcars and locomotives in order to ship an additional 120,000 barrels of oil by rail per day to American refineries and port terminals,” analysts at Seattle’s Sightline Institute reported.
This transfer of capacity from pipelines to “rolling pipelines” is unprecedented, unanticipated, and has unfolded only within the past several years. More than 200,000 barrels of oil are now carried by rail each day, up from fewer than 30,000 in 2012.
Documents obtained by media show federal regulators struggling to get straight answers about what kind of oil and how much is moving on trains through the Columbia River corridor.
Small wonder County Council is learning as they go.
“Because the Northwest is a prime destination for crude from both North Dakota and Canada, the Trump-era rollback in protections means greater risk for communities all along the rail lines from Spokane to Portland to Tacoma and beyond,” Sightline researchers reported. “Not even seven years old, the region’s oil-by-rail industry has proven itself to be an extreme threat to communities and wildlands along the rail line.”
Rail capacity has mushroomed at Cherry Point and March Point refining facilities. These piecemeal expansions receive little environmental review; and it is unclear what authority local governments can actually exercise to influence this traffic to ensure it is safe. Indeed, most of Council work at Cherry Point to date has focused more on the marine side of the export equation, where they hold a little more regulatory control.
“Almost everyone agrees that some big fossil fuel expansion projects, like oil trains, are a risk to public health and safety and ought to be looked at more carefully than has been done in the past,” noted Alex Ramel, Extreme Oil field director for Stand.earth. “And we all agree that basic maintenance and safety upgrades at existing facilities should be easy to do. There’s a productive conversation about the difference between those types of projects, and about what impacts can be mitigated and how. That’s where we should be focusing our attention.”
An unenthusiastic county administration has dragged this issue into the 2019 political season. Now it will become part of the ferment as Louws steps aside as county executive next year.