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Dark Horse

Why you should consider Tom Anderson for county executive

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The peculiarities of our polarized, winner-takeall elections probably means Tom honestly doesn’t stand much of a chance in the August primary. Local Republicans have thrown their weight behind Sen. Doug Ericksen for county executive. Without Ericksen in the race, their support would flow next to former Lynden mayor, Jack Louws. The Democrats, dissatisfied their nomination meeting in June did not produce a clear endorsement, will redecide the matter later this month. Their endorsement will fall almost certainly to former county planner David Stalheim, leaving Anderson in the cold. Most other endorsements follow cues of the Ds and Rs.

Tom doesn’t like it, but he takes it in measure.

It’s not so much Anderson is a centrist, and therefore incapable of stirring a political base. If anything, Anderson is politically conservative (as, indeed, are all the candidates who seek to administer a rural county), but one informed by a deep respect and understanding of science and engineering principles. Those principles forbid him as a conservative from ignoring the realities of global climate change, the decline of cheap energy resources, and the destruction of resource lands without benefit to the local economy.

Anderson has a pleasing manner that conceals a quick and creative intellect. He is a storehouse of knowledge on natural resources and who controls them. He has a knack for understanding the very, very Big Picture without sacrificing a nimbleness that allows him to see and seize opportunity locally. Working with energy systems in the public sector only sharpened these gifts.

When he was 13 years old, Tom dreamed of becoming an engineer.

“If you were to ask someone to draw a picture of what an engineer would look like and how he’d talk and behave, you’d probably get a picture of Tom Anderson,” one supporter quipped. “He was made for the part.”

Anderson applied those engineering skills in a number of private enterprises, which perhaps reached their apex in his role as general manager of Whatcom County Public Utilities District #1. The PUD is a water and electric utility that supplies power and water mostly to Cherry Point heavy industry that includes two oil refineries, an aluminum smelter and other smaller businesses. The PUD also serves water to the City of Ferndale.

Anderson was manager at a critical time, as the politics around water came to a boil over environmental and tribal challenges. Despite this, he helped strengthen and grow the public utility as the region shook a decade ago from rolling energy shocks. He learned the nuts and bolts of what keeps Whatcom’s heavy industrial base operating, what creates jobs and economic opportunities. He got to know water service and water rights down to the drop, and was able to apply the knowledge of agriculture he’d picked up as a boy and beyond into the development of digester energy systems. Less successfully, Anderson attempted to extend that entrepreneurship and utility into telecommunications in an effort to use fiber optic capacity to light up the economics of rural areas. He bumped into an unexpected turf war, not unlike that which frequently rages on County Council.

Anderson was a leading voice in a recent Peak Oil task force chartered by County Council to study the long-range impacts of energy scarcity and to plan for that.

“A war could break out in the Middle East at any time,” Anderson explained. “Oil prices could rise dramatically, and we need to at least consider that possibility and the impacts that would have on our local community.”

That’s a farsightedness that carries through much of Anderson’s approach to public policy.

Cascadia Weekly: How have your experiences shaped you to be county executive?

Tom Anderson: I was raised a beef farmer. I’ve worked in the woods. I’ve run my own small logging company. I’ve run a gold mine. I know all the sins and crimes of most aspects of industrial America. [laughs]  I was involved in a logging operation in Alaska, where I really got an early look at the kinds of environmental damage we can create, and it’s not really getting us where we want to be—particularly in that case because the timber was being created for toilet paper.

I took the PUD from an operation with seven pump station operators to a utility that was heavily involved in and influencing the watershed planning effort in Whatcom County. I straightened out the economic problems the PUD had when I got there in 1989 without any complaint from the customers. When I left, one of the refinery engineers said that the PUD had a level of customer service and appreciation for the customer needs that would be envied by most private companies. And that’s what we’ve got to get to with local government.

We have to have a local government that is responsive to the people, that’s listening to the people, that is involved and encourages involvement. We need a local government whose leaders are out in the community, talking to people and not pushing agendas but raising agendas. Raising concerns. Public conversation is important, really important.

CW: How will critical resources, like water, shape the county’s future?

TA: We have ample water for people. But if we are going to retain and maintain the level of environmental services that water currently provides, for fish and shellfish, we have to keep our water clean. We haven’t done a very good job of that. Right there is something we need to pay better attention to, but the biggest problem is we don’t collect enough data.

We get a grant for data collection in one place for a few years, another grant for more data collection someplace else. But we really need to have integrated data collection that goes on long enough that we can watch trends.

More than that, we need an annual conference in Whatcom County that deals with those trends. We need to get all the players together, sit down once a year and say, “How are you doing? Did what we agreed to do last year work?”

We don’t do that. If you want change, if you want improvement, you have to measure it. Then you have to talk about it. We don’t do that. It’s critical for our long term health.

Second, we have a totally messed up legal system to track water use and water rights. The state hasn’t adequately maintained its databases of water rights for 30 years. It’s a mess.

The state has the power and duty to remove unused water rights from the books. There’s still a water right that they count as valid in Whatcom County that’s for the steam trains at Canyon Creek to fill steam engines for logging operations. There hasn’t been logging operations at Canyon Creek for about 90 years.

A good inventory of our water resources is primarily important, because we’re at risk of ending up in the federal courts with the tribes over water. If we end up in court—state courts and federal courts—that will cost this community millions of dollars that we can’t afford to have drained out of our economy. Yet, if we do a better job of managing the resource and come to a better understanding of it, we strengthen our community and enhance our economy.

You want to have conversations about this, not lengthy legal battles that enrich Seattle attorneys.

CW: Let’s talk about public utilities. Our border cities operate as public utilities.

TA: Yes, Blaine and Sumas receive their power directly from Bonneville Power, so they’re legally public electric utilities, and that gives those cities some interesting advantages. Sumas, in particular, is an interesting study. One of the reasons Sumas has so much industrial growth is because the city has its own power supply that is cheaper than Puget Sound Energy. The city does a really good job of structuring its rates to encourage industrial growth.

CW: Is that a program that could be expanded in any way to other areas of the county?

TA: Technically it could. The Public Utility District technically has electrical authority countywide, so it could technically take over any of Puget’s service territory. But that is a big fight, and one you don’t want to wade into, necessarily.

Within the last five years, the Bonneville Power Administration has implemented a tiered rate structure that has permanently allocated all of the cheap hydro to a given set of utilities. So the PUD couldn’t go to Bonneville to get enough cheap hydro to serve that kind of plan. It wouldn’t be any cheaper than Puget.

But let’s see where we’re at in 10 years. Clearly the PUD has potential as a tool for long-range energy planning. Again, if you have your own utility, money tends to stay local.

CW: You’ve talked of the need for better long-range planning for our energy future. Describe that.

TA: We’re unique here in the Pacific Northwest in that we have this huge primary resource of hydroelectric power, but it does not supply all of our energy needs. Some of that must come from fossil fuels, in particular natural gas. The problem is, if you look worldwide and start to analyze energy consumption, it isn’t that the world is running out of gas and oil, it’s that it is running out of cheap oil. We’ve seen that now, in the last few years, when oil is back up to $100 a barrel.

The problem for us is that expensive fuel is draining money out of the economy. Just think about this—the U.S. imports and consumes about 20 million barrels of oil per day. Ten years ago, that oil cost about 10 bucks a barrel. That’s $200 million dollars a day. Now it costs 10 times that amount for the same oil. That’s $2 billion a day. More than half of that is actually leaving the country. That doesn’t help the local economy, certainly it doesn’t help the U.S. economy.

That’s a message people have to understand. We are seeing an increase in the cost of oil, and it has impacts.

The trick for a local economy is to save energy. We don’t produce energy of that nature here. We process it, but we do not produce it. So the less we use, the more money stays locally in the economy, to drive the local economy.

If you drain money out of the economy—whether it’s for energy or attorneys for water rights fights, or for crude oil from foreign countries—it has local impacts on our quality of life.

You want to create jobs? Save energy.

CW: What would you do as county executive to help guide us into that energy future?

TA: One thing I would propose as county executive is to take the county’s vehicle fleet and convert that to natural gas use. Why natural gas? Natural gas is cheaper than regular gasoline by about half, and it is going to stay that way a while because we have a glut of natural gas that will last for at least five years.

The second reason is, we produce natural gas locally—we have bio-gas generators on farms. We have enough digestable waste in this county to more than supply our entire fleet of public transit vehicles, our bus system.

Now, if we produce our own fuel for our public transit locally that keeps money circulating here and drives jobs. If you buy diesel oil, no, that money is going out of the county.

If the county and its municipalities have big fleets to convert, that empowers the private sector to get busy and put in the stations and equipment to supply that fuel, to convert engines—jobs!

CW: This week County Council will adopt rules for wind generation that make it all but impossible to install large-scale wind systems. Meanwhile, there’s been a ban in place on wind energy systems in the county for more than a year. Does this frustrate you?

TA: I am frustrated by that. Although there’s not a huge opportunity for wind power generation in Whatcom County—the wind doesn’t blow as hard here as elsewhere—but some of the higher points in the county do receive pretty good wind. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be investigating putting towers in some of those places.

Yes, some people don’t like them; some people don’t like energy efficient light bulbs. But clearly there needs to be a good public process when considering these items.

We need more people involved sooner, we need to schedule more time sooner for public dialogue that is transparent and effective. The process we have today, where by the night of the council’s decision the public finally gets to comment, that’s bullshit. It’s obvious they’ve already been influenced, they’ve already made up their minds, and the rest is just a formality. That doesn’t lead to good public policy.

CW: What can the county executive do to help the council generate better policy?

TA: I would hope a lot. Now, considering some of the personalities up there, well [laughs].  But that is the classic instance of relationship building. You have to get in there early and often, you have to put energy into those relationships and it is going to take time.

The other way you can influence council as county executive is you can empower the citizen boards and commissions we have in existence so that they can apply productive pressure to the council. We have failed to adequately involve citizens.

CW: Perhaps the most contentious area of public policy is in land use planning, something you say is critical as we craft a long-range vision and economy for our area.

TA: Yes, the cycle we’re in right now is not only stupid, it is utterly useless—players scheming against each other, trying to figure out how to squeeze another drip out of the spigot. We have to get to a level of planning that meets state law and serves the needs of a broad range of people.

If we look at other places that survive on less energy than we do, we need to change how we lay things out.

CW: What’s your vision for Lake Whatcom?

TA: I think the way to achieve the kind of cooperation necessary to protect Lake Whatcom is, frankly, to take it out of the hands of the council system. They had talked at one time about forming a flood control zone district that has a legal authority for taxing purposes.

You need that kind of structure dedicated to that specific purpose. You need a body with enough of a budget to have staff that is a focal point. The county and city will still be involved, but that group would be the driver, and their goal would be to report progress every year. Our problem is we get in these circular debates and nothing happens.

Some of our current problem, I believe, is we’re too myopic. I think some of our phosphorous cycles that drive water quality issues are really quite long, much longer than we’ve studied.

But you have to create the studies and the processes that are able to outlast the elected officials and political process that first implemented them. If those processes are not robust enough to outlast the officials, then the effort will die.

CW: Do you support at least the concept underlying the reconveyance of timber lands around Lake Whatcom?

TA: The problem right now with the reconveyance is it doesn’t offer a lot of flexibility. Either the Dept. of Natural Resources manages the forests full tilt, or it must be a park. Neither may not be the ideal solution. What is ideal, and what I do support, is the land gets managed so that it has positive impacts on water quality in the lake and is beneficial to the local community.

I’ve heard of bills in Olympia that might allow for reconveyance without the use requirement for a park. I think that’s a good direction.

CW: We’ve saved coal for last. What are your thoughts on the proposed shipping terminal at Cherry Point?

TA: Number one, I am in favor of building a shipping terminal. But the terminal I want to see built is one that is ultimately beneficial to serving Whatcom County. My concern is, ocean shipping is—without question—the least expensive form of transport and it always will be. If we’re going to participate in a regional and global marketplace to any extent, our access to shipping and transportation corridor is critical.

I am personally convinced, based on my own experience, that facilities can be built that are environmentally low impact.

But what is being proposed right now, which would foreclose on the county’s access to shipping? No. We do not need to have North America’s largest coal terminal at Cherry Point.

Not only is it bad local policy, it is bad national energy policy. The U.S.’s only major energy reserve is its coal fields.

Now, we could get busy and build an alternative energy future with solar, geothermal and wind energy, but we’re not doing it. And guess what, if we don’t do it 20 years from now, what are we going to do for energy for jobs?

My second objection is an environmental one. Why would we ship coal to China and receive atmospheric mercury pollution in return? We know that is already happening, why would we choose to accelerate that?

Big picture nationally, that coal should probably stay in the ground.

Big picture locally, this is a great place, and we’ve got to keep it that way. If we don’t shape our own future, it will be shaped for us and by people we don’t necessarily agree with.

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