Earlier this year the federal government and then the State of Washington scuttled a coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County. Emboldened, an environmental group amped up a related online petition drive to the Whatcom County Council to take further steps. Activists have urged the council to use a scheduled county Comprehensive Plan review to permanently bar expansion of added export capabilities for the BP and Phillips 66 refineries at Cherry Point. Recently, the plot thickened even further.
Council Member Carl Weimer moved just prior to the July 4 weekend to begin fast-tracking a formal approval process to stop future export growth of the facilities. The action by Weimer would be a major jolt to the region’s economy and sparked major blowback from business and labor. For now the growth limits are sidetracked, but likely to resurface.
Cherry Point A Major Jobs Driver
The Cherry Point industrial zone directly and indirectly drives an estimated 11 percent of employment, and 15 percent of salaries paid in Whatcom County. That’s according to the Employment at Cherry Point study released in 2014 by the Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports.
Fuel You Use To Drive, Fly
BP emphasizes that its Cherry Point refinery has long played a crucial role in the operation of the region’s economy, supplying fuel for motorists and major airports.
“Since it started operations in 1971, Cherry Point has processed a large share of Alaska’s North Slope crude oil…the facility processes more than 9 million gallons of crude oil a day, primarily transportation fuels. It provides about 20 percent of the gasoline market in Washington and Oregon, the majority of jet fuel for Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, BC international airports, and is the largest West Coast supplier of jet fuel to the U.S. military.”
In comments June 28 to a January draft of the so-called Comp Plan, for a review that’s required under the state’s Growth Management Act, Weimer added new draft language that would have curtailed growth of the jobs engine.
It stated that the County “no longer supports construction of additional export docks or piers at Cherry Point due to environmental and treaty rights concerns” tied to fishing and shellfish harvesting at the shoreline and what he termed increased risk of oil spills.
On Friday July 1, Weimer moved to launch a new stage of council consideration of the proposed change, with scant time for public notice of a new July 5 hearing on the matter.
Alliance: ‘Gutting’ New Job Creation Unwise
Despite the short notice, about 30 people attended the July 5 hearing, many opposed to the swift move to limit growth of export and jobs from the long-established facilities. The council delayed further consideration a week, and this week shelved the proposal for what one council member said could be at least half a year.
In a written remarks, John Huntley and Brad Owens, the Co-Chair and President of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, said that the “proposed change would prohibit development of property and expansion of existing industrial uses on property zoned for industrial use, thereby gutting the potential for new job creation by existing or new businesses….Creating additional restraints on the viability of new and existing industries at Cherry Point would emasculate Whatcom County’s family-wage job base.”
Blowback From County Staff, Too
A high-ranking county official also weighed in with a warning. In a July 5 letter to the council about Weimer’s move, Assistant Director of Planning and Development Services Mark Personius wrote, “These suggested policy changes would constitute a significant change in land use/shoreline policy…There are potential legal and regulatory consistency issues raised” and “potential economic development and fiscal impacts to be considered,” Personius wrote.
Personius’ letter goes on to recommend the council take some time to consult with attorneys and figure out what position it wants to take on fossil fuel exports and “encouragement of renewable energy.”
Hitting The Brakes, For Now
Weimer and Council Member Todd Donovan voted to move forward with Weimer’s proposal as written but the remaining five voted to further examine the amendments, and allow for more public comment.
“We decided to take the land use proposal and send it back to the Planning Commission and not consider it in this current batch of comprehensive plan updates,” Council Member Ken Mann told Lens after the July 12 meeting. There isn’t a definite timeline, according to Mann, but the language might work its way back to the council within six months to a year.
Huntley and Owens in their statement had decried the rushed timeline. They wrote, “The attempt to limit public participation on this issue is evident, given the timing of the meeting and Council’s statements on the record that they intend to hold the last formal public hearing on August 9th and then to adopt the plan immediately afterward, implying that public comment at the hearing will have little to no impact…”
Two attempts by Lens to reach Weimer for comment were not successful.
Scrutiny, Outreach Lacking
“The challenge is most people who are supporting the proposal believe there are no fossil fuel exports happening at the moment,” said Rud Browne, another council member. Browne told Lens the BP facility is already a fairly significant exporter of refined fossil fuels. If the facility were to be shut down, he said there would be increased tanker traffic in Puget Sound as other refineries brought in fossil fuels from elsewhere.
Washington State Rep. Luanne Van Werven (R-42) told Lens the original land use plan was “acceptable” and encouraged economic growth at Cherry Point. “And all of the sudden these new marked-up amendments completely turned it upside down, without due process,” said Van Werven.
Alcoa-Intalco Works, also located at Cherry Point, would not be able to build a structure for storing aluminum under the proposed changes, according to Van Werven.
“There has not been a process of bringing stakeholders together or doing the scrutiny that is always part of major policy changes and (it) is very disturbing that we are all now just finding out about it after the fact,” said Van Werven.
County Executive Cool To Proposed Changes
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws told Lens, “I don’t believe it is in the best interest in Whatcom County to be involved in limiting the ability of industry particularly without any more public review of a major sweeping policy change like this,” said Louws.
Matthew Hepner, executive director of Certified Electrical Workers of Washington, attended the July 12 meeting to testify against Weimer’s proposed changes. Hepner told Lens the County needs jobs and economic development, especially at a time where wages are “stagnant”. He added that the city of Ferndale “is absolutely dependent on that location for success,” given the number of local residents who work at the refineries. The Phillips 66 facility is near Ferndale.
The proposed language would place Phillips 66 and all Cherry Point energy-based businesses at a severe competitive disadvantage, according to Jeff Callender, spokesperson for the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery.
“The proposed amendments would seriously undermine our ability to adapt to changing market conditions and make it difficult for the refinery to maintain existing infrastructure,” said Callender in an e-mail statement to Lens.
Some Voice Support
Others have expressed support. In comments submitted to the council on July 4, Antonella Antonini of Bellingham praised Weimer’s proposal, stating that it “anticipates new industrial development in the clean energy economy” without disrupting current industry operations.
Jayne Freudenberger wrote to the council that further expansion at Cherry Point would interfere with treaties made with the Lummi Nation to protect their fishing rights. “Carl’s amendments strike a good balance – protecting the rights of the existing industries while protecting the area from further expansion of fossil fuels projects,” she wrote.
Council Member Mann said the intent of the proposal is not to shut down industry at Cherry Point. Mann said he has been specific in asking BP and other businesses in the area to be specific about what in the language could threaten their operations. “We want the language to protect them and allow them to continue to operate and function and adapt to market conditions,” said Mann.
Callender said Phillips 66 recommends that any proposed changes should follow the prescribed process beginning with the Planning Commission and allowing adequate time for meaningful engagement with stakeholders.
“All we can do is present the facts as we know them and hope that sound minds prevail,” said Owens.
Mann said the council is seeking to engage the community with more rigorous hearings. He added one option the council may consider is finishing all parts of the comp plan but not doing the final vote until the process for Cherry Point has been completed.
Fishing Impacts Disputed In Coal Terminal Decision
In denying permits for the proposed coal export terminal of SSA Marine at Cherry Point earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relied heavily on anticipated negative impacts to tribal fishing, buttressed by a report from the Washington Department of Ecology.
However project supporters emphasized minimal impact on fishing. They said that the increase in vessel disruption described by Ecology as 76 percent was deceptive because that actually represented the difference between a fraction of a percent, from .11 to .19. They also stressed that state data showed the number of boats during fishing season opening days from 2002 to 2014 were very few. Over the total 13 year span, project supporters said that within a half mile of the proposed terminal only four boats were counted on opening days, and 11 within a mile.
Reporting and writing by Mike Richards and Matt Rosenberg.