Wednesday, August 21, 2019
GROUND ZERO: Whatcom County Council made their final adjustments and recommendations to the Comprehensive Plan for the county’s heavy industry zone at Cherry Point before they adjourned for their summer recess. Their amendments will now be bundled up and presented to the County Planning Commission in a series of public meetings through the fall. But for all the effort, will the Cherry Point amendments be stillborn in 2020?
As the Council majority noted in their recitals, the amendments are an attempt to strengthen the very limited amount of local control over industrial permits for large fossil fuel projects at the Cherry Point. There’s not much local government can do in response to these projects; and these amendments are an attempt to provide tools that allow local government to do all they can.
“In the past few years, two separate projects permitted at Cherry Point substantially increased each refinery’s capacity to receive crude oil, with subsequent increases in risks to public health, safety and the environment,” Council noted. Neither received an environmental impact review.
“A fossil fuel shipping facility at Cherry Point recently invested hundreds of millions of dollars to increase, potentially by six-fold, the volume of product it moves through the county via rail and through local waters,” Council noted. No impact review was performed related to this; nor was one done for the facility’s pier expansion, which also greatly increased capacity for fuel export.
The amendments serve primarily as a means to keep the public informed of these expansions, and to acknowledge that in their aggregate these projects add up to very significant environment impacts indeed.
“Whatcom County Council has dedicated nearly three years of open public meetings working to develop Comprehensive Plan amendments, and zoning code amendments, to address the risks to public health, safety, and the environment associated with under-regulated expansion of fossil fuel facilities at Cherry Point,” Council noted in their recitals. They sought legal remedies future policymakers may choose to help limit negative impacts on crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases and natural gas production and shipments.
The amendments were approved 5-2; however, a shifting political landscape could change the balance on Council as the amendments return from public comment and review for approval next year.
At an almost 40 percent turnout in the recent primary balloting, there are perhaps few surprises in store for the coming election in November (for comparison, turnout in the last local general election was about 46 percent—a healthy response historically).
Kathy Kershner, who collected 68.2 percent of the vote in her district’s primary, is almost certain to replace Barbara Brenner on Whatcom County Council. District 4 in the county’s central farmlands is not at all competitive politically—this was understood going into the 2016 redistricting effort, but the district does have a well-defined shape for political representation. Farmlands deserve their own strong voice on County Council.
Brenner is mercurial and frequently incoherent on policy (she supported the fossil fuels moratorium until she became the most shrill voice against it). Kershner is neither mercurial nor incoherent. She will serve her district well, but she will vote securely as a territorial conservative on Council.
The political situation is more fragile in coastal District 5, representing the greater portion of Whatcom’s smaller cities and the lands between them. Ben Elenbaas performed well here, and could potentially shift the balance of assured votes on County Council.
District 5 is Ground Zero for the Cherry Point amendments. The industrial zone itself lies within the district, and certainly the potential harms of industry to air, water and public health and safety would be felt most keenly here. But the district is also Ground Zero for the benefits of industry to the local tax base and the jobs base. Cherry Point provides scores of jobs both directly and indirectly to these communities.
The district has a distinct blue-collar vibe, and appears to lean conservative. As a bellwether indicator of outcomes, rightwing firebreather Tony Larson performed very well in this district, marshaling 44 percent of the votes spread among the four candidates in the County Executive contest.
Compared against Elenbaas’ totals, Larson underperformed in District 5 by about 1,000 votes. Several factors could be at work here, including a larger number of options in the executive’s race. We’ll speculate that Elenbaas has stronger appeal to the blue-collar vote than business leader Larson.
Carol Frazey appears secure in her bid for the Council’s At-Large position, a race in which Bellingham will play a factor; however, if she should fail to gain reelection, the balance of power could dramatically shift on County Council, and the Cherry Point effort will die next year.
Even an outcome that fuses a coalition of votes between Elenbaas, Kershner, and Tyler Bird could doom the amendments if Larson succeeds in his bid for County Executive. A 4-3 split of Council support for the amendments would not survive an executive veto, and Larson’s administration in any event would be hostile to the intent and enforcement of the amendments.
Larson has amassed a spectacular war chest of $150,000, according to campaign financial disclosures. Two-thirds of that arrived in the form of maximal contributions of $1,000 or more from heavy hitters in finance and industry, including the refineries—with more on the way. He spent very little of it in the primary, which suggests his campaign this fall will be exceedingly well funded and sophisticated.
We see that ground zero in District 5 is key not only to the progressive goal of preserving a veto-proof majority on Council, but it may also prove central to the conservative goal of electing Larson to head county administration and the enforcement of land-use code. Both aspects are critical to the efficacy of the Cherry Point amendments.