The Gristle


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 “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.

Past Columns
E Pluribus Unum

May 15, 2019

The Millworks

May 8, 2019

State of the County

May 1, 2019

A Change in Climate

April 24, 2019

The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

Fire and Ice

March 6, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Coal Folds

February 6, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Upper Skagit Library Photo Contest


Ski to Sea Book Sale

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Parkinson's Dance Class

11:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Meet a Truck

1:00pm|Bellingham City Hall

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

SeaFeast Kickoff

5:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Spring Fling with Skagit Women in Business

5:30pm|Grand Willow Inn

Hidden Forest Foray

6:00pm|Sehome Arboretum

Off-Leash Books

6:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Spring Soups for the Body and Soul

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Life Between the Pages Dinner Book Club

6:30pm|Evolve Chocolate + Cafe

Birds of the West


Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Birds of the West

7:00pm|Village Books

Play Readings with Dragon Tales Productions

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

House Concert with Wandering Seas


Good, Bad, Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

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Ski to Sea Book Sale

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Play Readings with Dragon Tales Productions

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Wild Things

9:30am|Cornwall Park

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Peace Vigil

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fourth Friday Art Walk

5:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Seaside BBQ

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Salmon Dinner Sail

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Matilda the Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

The Hobbit

7:00pm|Judson Auditorium

Bellingham Community Chamber Orchestra

7:00pm| Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Improvised Musicals, LOL

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

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Upper Skagit Library Photo Contest


Ski to Sea Book Sale

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Play Readings with Dragon Tales Productions

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Matilda the Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

The Hobbit

7:00pm|Judson Auditorium

Improvised Musicals, LOL

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #154

Mount Vernon Farmers Market2333

9:00am|Riverwalk Park

Concrete Saturday Market

9:00am|Concrete Community Center

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Lummi Island Artists' Studio Tour

10:00am|Lummi Island

Birch Bay Book Sale

10:00am|Birch Bay Beach Park

Birch Bay Kite Festival

10:00am|Birch Bay Beach Park

Designing a Four-Season Hummingbird Garden

11:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Whatcom Memorial Day Parade

12:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Poetry Night with Sara Sutton

7:00pm|Walton Theatre

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