War Waged on Two Fronts
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
WAR WAGED ON TWO FRONTS: A packed house in both their afternoon and evening sessions this week greeted the anticipated release of Bellingham City Council’s Climate Protection Action Plan. The plan was presented by members of the Climate Action Task Force (CATF), a nine-member advisory group Council created in 2018 to determine city policy response to greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy transformations in response to global warming.
A similarly packed house greeted Whatcom County Council in a long, long evening meeting that included the eighth extension of the county’s moratorium on the acceptance and processing of applications and permits for major unrefined fossil-fuel projects at Cherry Point. Like the city’s climate plan, the county’s moratorium is intended to help shape public policy on fossil fuels and their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. County policy is currently under review in a series of meetings held by the Whatcom County Planning Commission, so it is no surprise a Council majority agreed to continue the extension while that public review is underway. That inexorable logic, however, didn’t prevent Council members from bickering over that ordinance and other issues until nearly 2am.
Only slightly more surprising was the letter County Council members received on the very day of their vote on the ordinance from legal counsel representing the BP Cherry Point refinery. The letter threatened legal action if Council pursued the extension.
There’s little risk a court would agree to interpose itself in the percolating legislative process currently underway; however, the letter is a fascinating document, as it lays out in recitals exactly how petroleum interests may attempt to unwind whatever land-use regulations finally emerge for the Cherry Point industrial zone. Their arguments revolve primarily around the primacy of the federal government in permitting energy transshipments.
It was always understood the global energy giants would issue a legal challenge of any proposed restriction in fossil-fuel exports—which is exactly why the genesis of the Cherry Point amendments has taken so long: The amendments had to be rigorous, robust in process and legally defensible against powerful interests.
Sadly, all this underscores the folly in attempting to work in partnership with industry to achieve responsive policy in response to greenhouse gas reductions and global warming—their profit-line is just not cooperative with that attempt.
Bellingham’s Climate Action Task Force presentation encountered analogous challenge from energy interests—notably Cascade Natural Gas and Puget Sound Energy—and their supporters in construction and growth-related industries.
The task force included community members with experience in renewable energy, energy conservation, land use, energy economics, community engagement, transportation and or finance. It also included representatives of the energy utilities—not as expert consultants with insights into their industry, but as actual voting members on task force goals.
The Climate Action Task Force produced a remarkable document, rich with public commentary and insight from utilities and related industries, that lays out a timetable for the Bellingham community to approach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 in a manner that is technically achievable. But they did so while some of their most ambitious goals were being struck from this aspirational document by voting members who represented utility interests. Indeed, CNG and PSE initially opposed the 2018 resolution that established the goals for the task force.
“There should be an inherent assumption that all parties involved with the task force, either officially as task force members, or unofficially as attendees offering support, will work together in good faith to efficiently perform the mandate of the task force, and proactively work toward a successful conclusion, culminating with a report offering potential solutions for reaching the 100 percent renewable goals,” CATF member Jill MacIntyre Witt noted in a statement. “With the support from PSE, CNG has inserted themselves into the task force’s process and attempts to influence the task force’s recommendations, whether through ‘volunteering’ to provide information or analyses, commenting on proposed ideas during task force meetings, or ‘filling in’ as a task force member, as was previously proposed by PSE’s representative to allow CNG to provide expertise where PSE can’t. It’s imperative that we as a task force recognize the attempts to influence the outcomes of the task force’s findings and recommendations for 100 percent clean energy options,” MacIntyre Witt said.
Alyn Spector, manager of energy efficiency policy at Cascade Natural Gas, pushed back on the statement.
“Cascade is concerned that without robust discussion, which sometimes includes principled disagreement, the recommendations made to the City Council will not be as vigorous or well-vetted as they should be,” Spector commented. “Our concerns do not exist in a vacuum.”
It’s an important observation, but perhaps these providers should not be at the forefront of shaping (or softening) public policy, but in a subordinate role with expertise and commentary on those goals.
The situation is analogous at Cherry Point, where private-profit industries have attempted to strangle public-sector policy and render the effort stillborn. These companies have a role to play, but that role is not in curtailing public expectations and aspirations on the challenge of climate change.
Notably, all of Bellingham’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution are dwarfed by the greenhouse gas emissions of our region’s five refining operations, which released about 4.5 million tons of those pollutants in 2017. Every permitted expansion at Cherry Point simply cancels decades of planning and effort by the state’s municipalities.
“This will be a challenge for all of us and our task is to go forward,” MacIntyre Witt observed. “This is not a statement to be divisive but rather an acknowledgement of our challenges ahead and we need to stay focused and positive toward reaching our objectives.”