The Point of Cherry Point
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
THE POINT OF CHERRY POINT: Whatcom County Council this week made final amendments and recommendations to the Comprehensive Plan for the heavy industry zone at Cherry Point, in anticipation that the Planning Commission will take up their recommendations in a series of public meetings through the fall. Following those required meetings, Council may adopt the plan amendments early next year.
While the public process is critical, Council’s Cherry Point amendments also bring the politics of the current County Executive race to a boil. The incoming administration will control the key departments that will enforce the environmental and public health and safety review of new major projects at Cherry Point—indeed, these departments will help determine whether such a review is even required. To date, hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions have been been poured into that race—much of it from manufacturing, heavy industry and petroleum interests.
As the Comp Plan itself outlines, “The Cherry Point Urban Growth Area (UGA) contains approximately 7,000 acres of industrial land. The land has long been planned and designated by Whatcom County for industrial development and is currently the site of three major industrial facilities including two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. Together, these three existing industries own about 4,400 acres of the total Cherry Point industrial lands. A fourth large tract of undeveloped land constituting approximately 1,500 acres is designated for industrial development.”
Council’s proposed changes would allow current uses and limited expansions of refinery capacity to allow these facilities to remain competitive and technologically efficient, but would prohibit new fossil- fuel refineries and fossil-fuel transshipment facilities. Their changes also prohibit new piers consistent with the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan.
Their efforts try to strike a balance between creating greater safeguards for the public without creating burdensome operational barriers for the industries already at work at Cherry Point. A clue that such balance can be achieved, the county has held a ban on new applications for major fossil-fuel projects for more than two years, yet the fossil-fuel industries at Cherry Point appear healthier than ever, turning record profits.
Perhaps the most innovative of recent proposals attempts to tie industrial expansion at Cherry Point to a standard for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions—a frank and welcome admission that the airshed itself may be an ultimate limit to growth. Apart from the obvious health and safety concerns that arise from a region-wide increase in the transport of highly volatile fuels, the very purpose of the Cherry Point amendments is an attempt to address local factors that contribute to global warming. Through their operation and the products they produce, major refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties are among the state’s most significant contributors to carbon dioxide release, according to the Northwest Clean Air Agency’s emissions inventory.
“The draft policy requires that any sizable increases in carbon footprint of fossil-fuel facilities must be offset,” noted Alex Ramel, oil projects field director for the public policy group Stand.earth. “This is a great policy. Right now, Washington’s refineries are cruising by without paying for their carbon pollution while their competitors all along the rest of the West Coast (in British Columbia and California) are under carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Ramel said. “Under the new proposed land use regulations, whenever a fossil-fuel company creates a new source of pollution, they would be required to offset that pollution locally—this has already happened at least once with the BP Refinery’s ultra-low sulphur diesel project paying for offsets that resulted in energy efficiency upgrades for small businesses and homes in the Whatcom County area.”
Council spent a great deal of time in their special committee deliberations debating whether capacity expansions at the refineries should be based on complex formulas of regional growth in population or consumption. Council member Todd Donovan argued instead for simplicity, that significant capacity expansions—as differentiated from general business growth—should be based on a conditional use or major projects permit. Both types of permits would require additional public involvement in whether they were issued.
The discussion addressed a fundamental weakness in the proposed amendments, Ramel observed, “whether and when there are conditional use permits required is one of the biggest questions in the discussion of this policy up to this point.”
Lack of clarity on the impacts of expansion allowed the addition of thousands of yards of rail track sidings that’ve allowed ten oil trains per week through Bellingham, each up to 100 cars long, each presenting a risk of derailment and explosion. The expansions were deemed by planners to be “non-significant”—but, as we’ve seen, their impacts have been significant indeed.
We’ll argue that simplicity offers clarity for planning staff, and predictability for industry—the single most important aspect for a business to continue to do business in a community.
“At the end of the day, I don’t see the imposition of conditional use permits, provided the requirements are reasonable, are something that industry can’t comply with,” Rud Browne, chair of the committee, commented. “We’re not asking the refineries to comply with a formula that is different from what what any other expanding business would have to do to obtain a conditional use permit.”
Again, the degree of continued public involvement in the expansion of fossil-fuel industries is what is at issue here, with Council agreeing public oversight should continue.
The coming election likely won’t (but certainly could) change the balance of votes on County Council required to pass the Cherry Point amendments next year. But legislative policy is only as good as the administration elected to carry it out.