Wednesday, August 19, 2020
INCREMENTS: Under pressure to move forward with their work on the proposed Cherry Point amendments despite the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, the Whatcom County Planning Commission held a virtual meeting by audio conference on those topics last week. After 11 work sessions revising the draft code amendments, the Planning Commission offered this final online public hearing as an opportunity for industry leaders and citizens to weigh in on the topic of fossil fuels and the expansion of fossil fuel exports at Cherry Point. More than 75 people spoke at the virtual meeting.
When their work is completed, the Planning Commission will return their review of the proposed land-use changes, along with recommendations, to Whatcom County Council for approval. If approved, the land-use amendments could be added to the county’s Comprehensive Plan for its heavy industrial zone.
Due to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, County Council in June extended their moratorium on new major fossil-fuel export projects for an additional six months while the Planning Commission completes their work. In 2016, Council initiated the public review process for a set of draft code amendments to control pollution and better protect the air, water and communities around Cherry Point’s fossil fuel industries.
The long genesis of the Cherry Point amendments, coupled perhaps with a dramatic cooldown of the heated economy driving the production and export of fossil fuels, may have created an opening for creative approaches and collaboration among both petroleum industry leaders and activists seeking to limit carbon pollution leading to climate change.
These collaborative approaches produced a clearer definition of renewable fuels and their requirements, a focus both groups would prefer to see receive greater emphasis at local refineries. The joint proposal would make clear that movements of traditional petroleum products are not prohibited and are an understood use of the heavy-industry zone.
At the heart of these amendments is the land-use distinction of an outright permitted use versus a conditional use, in which a development permit must be sought through a more extensive public review; and what factors might trigger those distinctions.
“The initial Council proposal would prohibit new fossil-fuel refineries and new transshipment facilities, and require a conditional use permit for renewable facilities,” Senior Planner Matt Aamot summarized. “The Planning Commission proposal also prohibits new fossil-fuel facilities; however, the Planning Commission recommendations are that new, renewable facilities should be a permitted use.
“Both proposals allow for activities associated with existing refineries,” Aamot said, “although the Planning Commission recommendations would allow for a more extensive list of permitted uses. Renewable facilities would be permitted outright under the Planning Commission proposal.”
The distinction would reduce the barriers to refineries pursuing advances in renewable fuels, industry analysts noted in their comments to the commission.
Disappointingly, the Planning Commission recommendation reduces or eliminates analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in the zoning code—the impetus for seeking the amendments in the first place.
“We’ve come quite a ways since this Council put these amendments out for review,” commented Eddie Ury, the clean energy program manager for RE Sources. “Now I think most people are in agreement that the Planning Commission has worked to improve and resolve these amendments. I’m really proud to say that just within the last 30 days, we’ve made some substantial progress to resolve some outstanding issues.”
Ury worked alongside BP, Phillips 66, and Petrogas on on many of the collaborative changes outlined by the commission.
“I appreciate the industries coming forward to work with us on how we could meet the policy interests that Whatcom County Council set forward to pursue—in ways that don’t create burdens or conflicts of interest in what the refineries need to continue to operate,” he said.
“The Council sought to address the concern that transshipment of fuels without refining bring increasing risks and hazards to the Salish Sea ecosystems, and the people and communities who live here,” Ury said. “If we’re shipping fuels without first refining them, that’s a concern to our local job force” he said, reflecting on the news this week that Phillips 66 will close a refinery in Northern California and use the remaining facility to ship crude oil directly overseas.
“What passed the Planning Commission last week was both cleaned up and watered down,” Alex Ramel observed. Ramel, now a representative for the 40th Legislative District, had worked as a consultant for several years on the Cherry Point amendments. “The draft passed by Council and sent to the commission last year, for example, had an inconsistency between the way that climate pollution is accounted for and dealt with between the sections on land use permits and on the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The industry, perhaps fairly, didn’t like that,” he said. “The commission deleted the requirement in the land-use section, which I could live with as long as it is done well in one place. But they also did away with the requirement that the pollution reported on in SEPA would need to be mitigated. That means it’s still just a staff decision that happens on an ad hoc basis, project by project.”
“Over the past decade we’ve seen the range of dangerous coal, oil and gas projects the dirty energy companies want to bring to Cherry Point. So we are counting on the Whatcom County Council to act decisively and protect our community from these fossil fuel expansions,” said Matt Krogh, director of the extreme oil campaign for the environmental policy group Stand.earth, a position Ramel held until his appointment to the Legislature last year. “They can and should require that all climate pollution from new projects and expansions be mitigated or prevented. And they can keep our community safe by requiring insurance so that the public isn’t left holding the bag after a spill or explosion.”
The amendments head back to County Council, and a more heated ferment with new members than when they were first proposed.