The Cherry on Cherry Point
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
THE CHERRY ON CHERRY POINT: Whatcom County Council made history last week; and in an increasingly rare instance in a heated public debate, consensus was reached and an issue was resolved—at least for now.
After five years and 11 extensions of their moratorium on fossil fuel exports at Cherry Point—following scores of public meetings and committee debates, along with hundreds of public comments—Whatcom County Council passed the Cherry Point Amendments.
First proposed by Carl Weimer when he served on County Council, the amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and land-use regulations prohibit new fossil fuel refineries, coal plants, transshipment facilities, or export piers and wharfs in the Cherry Point industrial zone.
Now permanently in place, these changes mean no new fossil fuel refineries, transshipment facilities, or certain types of other expansions can be built. Upgrade projects at existing refineries and terminals will be subject to more rigorous environmental review and permitting processes. Upgrades that reduce pollution and improve safety will be allowed if they meet these improved standards.
The initial driver of the amendments was, in large part, in response to a proposal to site an enormous coal export facility at Xwe’chi’eXen, an ancient tribal village site of Lummi Nation. In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal because it would have interfered with the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights. Yet in parallel with this coal expansion project, vast stretches of the nation’s interior were being opened to oil and gas extraction, and also proposed for export at Cherry Point.
The problem for County policymakers was, what planning and regulatory tools exist at the state and local level that might help local communities limit these exports and help guide energy industries to a cleaner future? And would those limits balance against support for the job base of heavy industries at Cherry Point, keeping those industries healthy and competitive?
RE Sources—a public policy group initially founded by Weimer, and which had played a pivotal role in opposing GPT—helped lay the groundwork to halt permitting these export projects while Council rigorously researched and explored land-use regulations to make them practical and legally sound.
They made use of the time given to them.
Meanwhile, the fossil-fuel industry poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into local elections, in a tussle that transformed the county’s political landscape. Three council districts became five; and open elections that once allowed all county voters to select their council representatives narrowed to district-only contests. The industry sought to dislodge the cohort on Council in support of these amendments.
But, through successive elections with enormous cash dumps, they could not budge that durable cohort. Failing that, the industries were forced to sit down at the table and negotiate as stakeholders. In doing so, they improved and strengthened policy to protect the job base and existing heavy industry.
Fossil-fuel giants had to stop the political mischief and negotiate, or risk having little influence at all on outcomes. And that’s an encouraging reversal of trends.
“We came to a point where our respective interests were best served by cooperating,” said Eddy Ury, who helped build the stakeholders group on behalf of RE Sources. “In the end, the ordinance is better than any of the alternatives that were available.”
After years of quarrelsome and bitter exchanges with those on Council who opposed restrictions on fossil fuel industries, the final vote in support of amendments was unanimous—7-0.
That is also something of a miracle, but it undergirds a benefit of an extended legislative process: When parties sit down to earnestly address one anothers’ concerns and meet objections with negotiation and compromise, in the end objections are cleared away. And, importantly, the industries themselves agreed to the final language of the regulations. It’s hard to recall a local public policy matter as thoroughly discussed as this.
“The process was long and complicated, but in the end this is something that we can all be pleased with,” Rep. Alex Ramel said. Ramel, who now serves in the Legislature, helped shape policy discussions as the Extreme Oil field director for Stand.earth, another key public policy advocacy group that stood with RE Sources.
“I think it will have a big impact on choosing a new future for Whatcom County and is a model we are looking to emulate in communities around the country,” Ramel said.
Is the final agreement perfect? Are complete environmental protections in place at Cherry Point? No; and no.
“This is the culmination of more than a decade of organizing by the community and the leadership of Lummi Nation,” Shannon Wright, executive director of RE Sources, observed. “In making environmental changes, there are big, important steps like these moving forward.
“There’s a lot more additional work to be done,” she said. “Does it solve all of the pollution problems at Cherry Point? No. Does it address the health impacts for local communities? No. It does not. Each piece, though, of this ordinance takes some action to protect us, as a community, and to address impacts on climate and the Salish Sea.”
Some Council members—including Weimer—have retired from Council since these amendments were first introduced, but many on Council have wrestled with them throughout. For some, their terms in office are coming to an end, and it is appropriate that the people who spent the time discussing these matters got their chance to vote on them. We suspect that was a driver in bringing them to a vote before Council’s August recess and the November elections.
“This is how environmental change happens,” Wright said. “You work hard, make a big step forward. Then you stand back up the next day and say there’s more work to do.”