‘Knockout punch’ for refineries with local government ‘bait-and-switch’

refinery
Changing Whatcom County planning rules to limit the use of fossil fuels requires significant updates to the county comprehensive plan required by the state. Recent actions by some councilmembers have left others councilmembers wondering how to protect the public process. Photo: Freepik

With one of the Washington environmental community’s top targets for elimination within its borders, Whatcom County demonstrated in January that the “public” part of the public process may be considered by some as expendable.

On Jan. 15, the Whatcom County Council passed what the county executive called a “knockout punch” aimed at one of Whatcom County’s largest employers – the Cherry Point Refineries: BP Cherry Point Refinery and Phillips 66 Ferndale – through a back-room process one councilmember called a “bait-and-switch.” These changes will impact all fossil fuel industry within the county.

Background:

  • Cherry Point Refineries is in Whatcom County, and a 2014 report states it supports 9,000 jobs, directly or indirectly – about 11 percent of the Whatcom County workforce.
  • September 2016: Whatcom County Council passes six-month moratorium on permits for fossil fuel projects at Cherry Point Refineries, extended every six months since.
  • February 2018: Council receives legal guidance on how to limit projects and permits at Cherry Point.
  • April 2018: Council passes Resolution 2018-015 to begin the process of creating permanent changes to limit fossil fuel permits.

“Bait-and-Switch”

Changing county planning rules to limit the use of fossil fuels requires significant updates to the county comprehensive plan required by the state.

In 2018, these changes were proceeding in public discussion by the Whatcom County Council until the December winter break when one councilmember took the process in a different direction, unbeknownst to the rest of the council.

In the first meeting back from council winter break on Jan. 15, councilmembers expressed surprise and confusion that an entirely new set of changes had replaced the document that had last been presented on Oct. 9.

Committee video shows councilmembers trying to determine the source of the changes as there was no source for the document listed as they usually expected. During committee comments, councilmember Todd Donovan revealed that he had worked with two environmental activists, Alex Ramel with STAND.earth and Eddy Ury with RE Sources, to write the changed document.

Changes were not tracked in the document, so the new language was not marked and did not attribute sources for any changes.

Committee confusion also sprung from the fact that the changed document was still labeled as the Oct. 9 version that members had been presented.

“To me that is essentially the equivalent of a bait-and-switch – it’s a used car salesman approach,” said Tyler Byrd, Whatcom County Councilmember.

Members commented that they had been told only minor updates had been made to the document. This proved false in the aftermath of the Jan. 15 meeting as council staff could not reconcile the new Donovan version with the version from October 9 due to major differences.

Donovan defended the complete overhaul of proposed changes saying this would expedite a process he believed was taking too long.

“Our going line by line by line, I don’t think has really gotten us anywhere,” Donovan said, explaining that passing the changes would be “getting this off our plate for a while.”

“There’s something weird about this,” said Barbara Brenner, a councilmember since 1992. “I have never ever been on a council that just pulled something to us at the last minute without giving us time to go through each of them individually.”

On Jan. 15, the council voted 4-2 to pass the document to the county planning commission without public discussion by the councilmembers of the individual changes slipped in during winter break.

The changes included in the document would require a conditional use permit for all fossil fuel related projects at Cherry Point, including accessory uses such as parking lots, office buildings and maintenance. Jack Louws, Whatcom County Executive, warned the council in a letter a week later:

“In practice, this proposal (if lawful, which I would challenge) would deal what I would consider a knockout punch to future capital repair and maintenance projects at the refineries, notwithstanding any consideration of major renovation projects.”

Rud Browne, council president, abstained from the vote to pass the amended document to the planning commission, and after outcry over the process submitted and passed a resolution at the next council meeting on Jan. 29 to address the major differences between the new Donovan document and the original one the council had been presented. The resolution directed Cascadia Law Group, a Seattle-based environmental law firm, to incorporate the changes made by Donovan with the original version of the document provided to the council in October.

However, the resolution was only presented to the council a few hours before the meeting in which it was passed, so it was not included in the public agenda.

While no council rules have been proven to be broken by councilmembers in making secret or last-minute changes to proposals and agendas, the way the proposal was pushed through the council had members wondering about how to protect the public process.

“I would beg anyone up here to argue that somehow this is a good process that gives public transparency and public input and ask these people to trust us and put their faith in our ability to do what’s right,” said Byrd in the council’s Jan. 29 meeting.

In that meeting, the council passed its sixth consecutive moratorium on fossil fuels permits at Cherry Point.

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