Of Apples and Barrels
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
OF APPLES AND BARRELS: A slimmer majority on Whatcom County Council may at last complete their changes to the permit process for major fossil fuel projects at Cherry Point—just in time to see those changes tested as a new major project moves forward.
Late ballot returns pushed the turnout in last week’s election significantly above the (still pretty healthy) number forecast on election night, well above the statewide average for participation and into historic territory for a recent off-year local election. More than half (55.2 percent) of the ballots mailed in Whatcom County were returned, according to the Auditor’s Office, a sign of strengthening democracy and—likely—the efficacy of efforts to increase the numbers of registered voters and the ease by which they can return their ballots: For want of a postage stamp, a kingdom needn’t be lost.
Judging by outcomes, voters seek government accountability that is more responsive, and more protective of public interest and expressed public values.
As expected, late ballots changed the equation on the hairbreadth margin for Whatcom County Executive on election night, and “get out the vote” efforts surged with other metrics to favor Satpal Sidhu over Tony Larson to head county administration. The genial centrist collected 51.1 percent of the final total—1,850 votes more than Larson.
That means policy work can continue on county discussions concerning industrial land use, and on criminal justice and behavioral health reform. The progressive majority on Whatcom County Council has thinned, and a new conservative axis has emerged that will likely produce 4-3 outcomes that could not survive an executive veto. That policy work, long underway, was at risk of being summarily scrapped by a hostile incoming executive branch.
With its strong job and tax base centered on Cherry Point, the county’s newly drawn and enigmatic Coastal District 5 comes into clearer focus with the strong 58.5 percent win of refinery worker Ben Elenbaas. A precinct analysis of various advisory votes on state revenue initiatives additionally tells of a strong blue-collar conservative mood in District 5—originally drawn to be a fairly competitive and centrist political division representing Whatcom’s smaller cities. Ironically, the district’s population centers fall within the airshed and impacts radius of the county’s heavy industry zone, which means the district stands to benefit more than others from the new standards on emissions and protections proposed for Cherry Point.
Those new standards are currently being reviewed by the Whatcom County Planning Commission, and are scheduled to return to Council for adoption early next year. Likely they’ll pass in a fairly predictable 4-3 split.
Scarcely will they be in place before they’ll be applied to a new major energy project application—the proposed Green Apple renewable diesel facility that would be jointly owned by the Renewable Energy Group and Phillips 66.
Phillips 66, in partnership with several petroleum interests, just spent an enormous amount of money in political expenditures to disrupt the recent county election that would decide the fate of the Cherry Point amendments—which raises questions about how “green” this renewable diesel project may be.
“The Green Apple Renewable Diesel project—as it has been described in public documents and numerous conversations—hopes to produce 18,000 barrels per day of renewable diesel,” notes Alex Ramel, the Extreme Oil field director for the public policy research group Stand.earth. “Renewable diesel is more refined than biodiesel, is chemically identical to petro-diesel, but can be produced from a variety of feedstocks ranging from used fry grease to soy or canola seeds to corn oil. Renewable diesel is particularly valuable in fuel markets with a mandatory low carbon fuel standard. Right now that’s California and Oregon, so those would be the likely destinations in the near term.”
The company claims that by displacing dirty petro-diesel, “the Green Apple facility will roughly reduce CO2 by the same amount as if removing all passenger cars in Whatcom, Skagit, Okanogan, and Chelan counties of Washington State.”
“That might be true; 18,000 barrels per day is a lot of diesel,” Ramel admits. “And precisely because it is a lot, the math needs to be checked very carefully. This is an enormous project that could have significant impacts if executed improperly.”
Of primary concern with this project is the nature and source of the feedstock—the source material from which the diesel product will be made—and the traffic and transportation impacts of both the arriving feedstock and the outgoing diesel product. The company projects an additional 144 vessel trips per year in the already heavily impacted Salish Sea. The project application includes a proposal that Cascade Natural Gas would add a seven-mile-long, 20-inch gas pipeline expansion across North Whatcom County. The pipeline would permanently increase the capacity to move fracked gas from British Columbia to Cherry Point.
This is precisely the kind of incremental and piecemeal expansion of major fossil fuel export projects the Cherry Point amendments were proposed to address. An improved storage tank creates efficiencies; it also leverages capacity to ship more oil. The amendments would make the permitting process for infrastructure and capacity increases at the refineries more transparent and available for public review. And they would provide a strengthened framework by which new major projects and their cumulative impacts may be evaluated under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist.
Green Apple will ripen under this new sunlight, and the public will get a better understanding of whether the apple is rotten at its core.