The Gristle

False Flags

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

FALSE FLAGS: The Whatcom County Council majority extended their moratorium on large-scale fossil-fuel export projects at Cherry Point following a lengthy and unsuccessful attempt to strip out the declarations of legislative intent (and therefore the plain meaning) of their actions by the Council minority—notably Ben Elenbaas, who works at one of the refineries.

“It just feels like a false flag to me, or a red herring or whatever—I’m not an English major,” Elenbaas stammered, “a false statement that we have to have this moratorium in place in order to provide for public heath and safety.”

It became apparent after using the term Elenbaas seemed confused about its alarmist meaning. Elenbaas is the same gentlemen who recently described citizens who petition and approach their elected governments on public policy matters as “domestic terrorists,” and he has trouble accepting simple explanations when complex conspiracy theories more favorably suit his views.

Kathy Kershner—a more rational voice overall on County Council—gets dragged along in his foaming wake. She cited the definition of false flag shorn of its loaded meaning.

“This started as a deception on the people of Whatcom County,” she declared without evidence in a heated exchange on the moratorium.

A false flag is an action that obscures the identity or mission of the participants carrying out an action while implicating another group or cause as the perpetrator. A false flag involves elaborate acts of deception meant to cast political blame on opponents and allow aggressors to claim to be victims.

Diverse interest groups coalescing around a more robust environmental review process is not a false flag. There is nothing misleading or concealed about their motives or joint interests, and what they want is precisely what they’ve requested. There is no subterfuge or deception.

A false flag would be, oh, something like proposing a major renewable fuels project at Cherry Point and then withdrawing the application before the permitting process has actually even begun in order to whip up an angry frenzy of public opinion of benefit to your larger interests of expanding nonrenewable fuels.

A false flag would be to employ a public health emergency as a pretext to weaken environmental laws and provide cover to polluting industries.

The reality is that there are very, very few things local governments or groups or individuals can do to influence large-scale energy projects that are deemed in the national interest; and the public debate about the Cherry Point amendments revolves entirely around whether Whatcom County should adopt any one or none on this very small list of things into its land-use code. Most of the items on this small list involve increasing public transparency, public process and public involvement as these projects move forward. A lesser, but important eddy of public debate swirls around whether we should make it harder or easier for large multinational corporations to export the U.S. domestic supply of crude petroleum to be processed at refineries overseas—and this debate is taking place as more than 700 industrial jobs evaporate at the Ferndale Intalco plant as U.S. domestic aluminum smelting capacity is lost to China.

Council had very limited options as to whether they should extend the moratorium (and debate) in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—the Whatcom County Planning Commission has not finished their own analysis of the proposed Cherry Point amendments, nor can they as public meetings are canceled in response to social-distancing orders.

The Cherry Point amendments’ very small list of public process actions may in fact be swept away by the Trump administration before they can even be enacted.

As Council bickered over the meaning of deception, last week the President signed a far-reaching executive order under the guise of “economic emergency” that exempts large, intrusive, highly polluting and destructive projects from public scrutiny and environmental guardrails in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, may also be waived as well under the false flag of economic recovery.

The action follows swiftly on the rollback of environmental review of major projects under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act, dramatically shortening the amount of review time states have to act on an application, while limiting the conditions that local governments can put place to protect state waters from pollution.

“With the stroke of a pen, EPA intends to handcuff Washington’s ability to protect our waters, our environment and our communities,” Washington State Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson said in a statement “This action is a blatant attempt to rewrite the 1972 Clean Water Act by diminishing the role of the states in protecting water quality. It makes a mockery of the federal-state partnership that has protected our nation’s waters for nearly 50 years.

“EPA’s new rule is a solution in search of a problem. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act is working as Congress intended, and continues to be successfully implemented across the country.”

These are false flags—employing the economic panic of coronavirus as an excuse to weaken environmental laws with broad public support.

“From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays,” Trump declared as he rolled back NEPA. “Antiquated regulations and bureaucratic practices have hindered American infrastructure investments, kept America’s building trades workers from working, and prevented our citizens from developing and enjoying the benefits of world-class infrastructure. The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”

The president’s critics were quick to point out that his order was poorly timed, since minority communities would be disproportionately affected by his move to waive the environmental review mandated under NEPA. 

“Today President Trump is dealing another blow to the Black community, during a worldwide pandemic and nearly a week into nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and structural racism,” said Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a statement. “Gutting NEPA takes away one of the few tools communities of color have to protect themselves and make their voices heard on federal decisions impacting them.”

“This recent executive action cements the Trump administration’s legacy as the most callous and brutal regime in modern times,” said Susan Jane Brown, Wildlands Program Director with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Trump administration has failed to protect Americans’ public health, failed to protect the civil rights of Black people and other people of color, and now will fail all of us by abandoning this sensible policy that requires federal agencies to look before they leap. Contrary to the president’s sham rationalizations, robust environmental reviews would play an integral part in a just economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis. Undermining NEPA will only further marginalize communities and deepen structural inequities.”

Past Columns
In the Mail

August 5, 2020

Experience Matters

July 22, 2020


July 8, 2020

Economic Snapshots

June 24, 2020

Napoleons In Exile

May 27, 2020

Alcoa Unmade

April 29, 2020


March 25, 2020

Protecting the Vulnerable

March 18, 2020

An Evolving Crisis

March 18, 2020

Pandemic Pandemonium

March 11, 2020

A New Hope

March 4, 2020

Managing Expectations

February 26, 2020

A Mad Triad

February 19, 2020

Another Jail Fail?

February 12, 2020

Wacko Whatcom

February 5, 2020

Shelter From the Storm

January 29, 2020


January 22, 2020