The Gristle

The Cherry on Cherry Point

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

THE CHERRY ON CHERRY POINT: Another long, long evening session last week, filled with diverse and thoughtful (and respectful) comments representing a broad swath of opinion, and Whatcom County Council at last—after more than a year of work—approved a series of amendments to govern future planning policy for the Cherry Point industrial zone.

The amendments include provisions relating to future fossil fuel export projects; but more comprehensively, they re-weight and give improved standing to considerations of ecological function, environmental protection, historical use, stewardship and recognition of indigenous treaty rights alongside imperatives of economic development and industrial use in future planning for Cherry Point. Notably, the amendments require all permits that involve handling fossil fuels to be reviewed under the “Magnuson Amendment” to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act; and very likely they foreclose forever on any future consideration of an additional shipping pier in Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.

Council also approved a study to help develop recommendations for legal ways the county may choose to limit the negative impacts on public safety, transportation, the economy, and environment from crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases, and natural gas exports. They authorized $150,000 for the study with a completion date set for the end of the year. The product of this work may provide tools to local governments as they respond to new national and international directives that would increase the shipment of volatile fuels through the community.

Opponents, many of them refinery workers at Cherry Point, said restrictions would hurt the ability of local industry to compete and ultimately lead to job loss. Others said it sends a hostile, unwelcoming message to the economic development that produces family-wage jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, hurting the local economy and charitable organizations that rely on donations from workers and the refineries.

Undoubtedly, those criticisms will fuel angry political action and outcomes through the coming county election cycle. Undoubtedly, that will gin up another cycle of dark money flooding campaign coffers. And undoubtedly, Council’s work will be miscast and mischaracterized as the meddling of activist, job-hating liberals.

Opposition was well organized and financed by the petroleum industry and rightwing front groups like the Whatcom Business Alliance. Even state legislators representing the district attempted to elbow into the discussion, issuing a thinly disguised threat on state letterhead to chide the Council about job loss and economic catastrophe.

Supporters were well organized, too, encouraging the Council to go even further to limit fossil fuels and protect the ecological function of county resource lands.

But Council’s work on Cherry Point needs to be primarily understood as trying to reassert conditions that existed prior to the 2015 action by Congress that lifted a 40-year ban on the export of crude oil. In other words, for most of the productive life of local refineries, they were unable to consider the sorts of export projects the petroleum industry now asserts are critical to their future survival and profitability. Local refineries existed quite happily and profitably inside this 40-year federal ban. And county policy did not need to consider protections against the impacts of unrefined exports because the protections already existed, subsumed within the ban.

The repeal of the ban released volumes of oil extracted from rapidly expanding domestic output levels, part of a federal initiative to increase domestic supply. It’s ironic, then, that this domestic strategic supply is siphoned off and shipped offshore to fuel foreign economies; and it is equally ironic that the petroleum industry asserts that the profits from this export, which was not allowed before, is now utterly central to their survival. And it is achingly ironic that lifting the ban could actually shift the bulk of refinery operations overseas, eliminating local refinery jobs.

But lifting the ban immediately shifted the burden of impacts to local governments, while the regulatory controls remain primarily federal.

What powers can local governments call upon to responsibly address that change in status?

That is the purpose of the study.

Based on a review of the coal and oil industry’s proposed export projects for Cherry Point, in total they could release more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Those projects include expansions to the Puget Sound and Trans Mountain pipelines, as well as development of a proposed Steelhead liquified natural gas (LNG) export pipeline. For comparison, the total emissions for Washington state was 92 million metric tons, according to the Department of Ecology.

Doing nothing, permitting everything, Whatcom County alone would produce on the order of 2.3 times current Washington state carbon emissions combined, according to data provided by

But it would be an equal miscast or mischaracterization to suggest Council’s amendments try merely to reassert conditions that existed prior to the act of Congress in 2015.

“Since the designation of this area for industrial development years ago, newer scientific study of the shoreline ecology has identified Cherry Point’s unique function as part of the Fraser River/Georgia Strait and greater Salish Sea ecosystem and the associated Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve has been designated by the state Department of Natural Resources to recognize the ecological importance of the 32 aquatic lands in this area,” Council asserts in recitals. “Since adoption of earlier versions of this Comprehensive Plan, governments have increased their recognition of the observed and projected effects that fossil fuel extraction, transportation and use have on human health and the environment.”

Their action was historic. Their action was needed. And their action is a legacy for the balance and protection of one of the most vital coasts on the Pacific Coast.

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