Down to the Wire
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
DOWN TO THE WIRE: Whatcom County Council held another lively teleconference meeting this week, working through the final code amendments to help limit unrefined fossil fuel export projects at Cherry Point. Council is expected to vote on the proposed land-use code amendments by the end of this year.
“We did spend many long hours working on this and updating various drafts to finally arrive at something we collectively felt like we could be proud of and support, with the usual caveat that support for these revisions does not necessarily entail an endorsement of the ordinance in its final form,” Eddy Ury, RE Sources’ Clean Energy Program manager, said on behalf of the stakeholders group that reviewed the proposal. The group has proved to be a remarkably productive assembly of environmental interests and petroleum industry representatives who built a broad consensus of agreement on the amendments. Their consensus helped shut down a great deal of Council acrimony on the topic.
“We have a shared understanding of what our agreements are, even though clearly different stakeholder parties that worked on this do have disagreements on policy and purpose,” Ury admitted.
Under development since 2016, the Cherry Point amendments are the most heavily scrutinized and commented upon land-use policy in the county’s history, with scores of hours spent reviewing and revising the proposals with community stakeholders and industry. The amendments had their genesis even earlier, as the community debated the siting of the largest coal port in North America on tribal lands. At their essence, the amendments are intended to improve public process and transparency of major projects planned for the Cherry Point industrial zone. And in the intervening years, the fossil fuel industry has meanwhile spent scores of hours and nearly half a million dollars in local elections, bitterly mischaracterizing and trying to defeat these code amendments.
Most recently, the refineries donated $52,000 to the 42nd Legislative District Republicans, who used the money in a series of radio ads and mailers that attempted to smear Democrats as corrupt socialists and anarchists supportive of riots. The effort brought the Whatcom County Sheriff into the fracas, sending out a message on the eve of the election, assuring the peaceful exercise of the public’s right of democracy. Curiously, neither the fossil-fuel interests or local Republican Party representatives claim any knowledge or responsibility for the purchase or content of the inflammatory ads and mailers.
“I did not and would not authorize or adopt those statements about the Democratic Party,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said in a statement. “I also did not see the flyer until it was brought to my attention from the chair of the Democratic Party. I contacted candidate Luanne Van Werven who told me she was not aware that my name was associated with the flyer containing the derogatory comments. She investigated further and reported back to me that the flyer had been prepared and distributed by an independent PAC without her knowledge (and certainly not mine). I know nothing about the PAC, did not communicate with them in any way and again, did not authorize the statement regarding Democrats.”
“The Sheriff has informed me, and local media, that he didn’t know that he’d been linked with calling Democrats pro-rioting, socialists and corrupt,” Council member Todd Donovan noted in an email complaining of the campaign.
“The Sheriff said candidate Luanne Van Werven told him this ad was prepared by ‘an independent expenditure by a political action committee,’” Donovan continued. “If that is the case, the ad is illegal, as it fails to note who the major donors to the PAC.”
As state legislators, Democrats Sharon Shewmake and Alicia Rule have no direct involvement in the county’s Cherry Point amendments; nor does the land-use code have any direct linkage to the Defund Police movement—which neither candidate supported. The oil industry simply has loads of cash to spend trying to leverage pro-oil Republicans into office, and the local Republican Party is simply dumb and lazy (and frequently unlawful) with how they spend the money.
In 2019, the industry gave $75,000 to Republicans to smear Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, claiming he planned to raise gas prices to $18 per gallon. Needless to say, the County Executive has very little influence over gas prices in the United States.
In 2018, late-hour campaign contributions by energy interests arguably kept Sen. Doug Ericksen in office for another term by fewer than 50 votes.
Their efforts have not been particularly successful, and the Council now stands on the threshold of approving the Cherry Point amendments on a very persistent 4-3 divide.
In the intervening years, the makeup of Council, its membership, has changed substantially. The very manner in which we elect Council members and the districts they represent have changed as a result of the tinkering of fossil fuel interests. Thousands of dollars have flowed into our local politics—not all of it appropriate or even legal under the state’s campaign disclosure laws. That influence has created powerful knock-on effects across the whole spectrum of public policy, far beyond Cherry Point and its refineries. So it can be said that even as Whatcom County has worked to improve public policy at Cherry Point, the influence of the petroleum industry at Cherry Point has worked to profoundly influence the public policy of Whatcom County.