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Environment

Whatcom council to vote on permanent ban of new fossil fuel industries at Cherry Point

An aerial view of the docks at BP's refinery at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, WA. The dock on the left is the "North Wing," which was added in 2001, initially without formal environmental review.
Fred Felleman
/
An aerial view of the docks at BP's refinery at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham.

It could become a model for refinery communities around the country when it votes on Tuesday night. That’s what some advocates are saying about Whatcom County as its council gets ready to decide the fate of industrial land at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham.

The area has a deep-water port and two oil refineries. It’s zoned for industrial use. It sits adjacent to waterways that connect the Northwest to lucrative markets across the Pacific Rim. It’s also where what would have been the nation’s largest coal export facility – the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal – was canceled five years ago. 

Since then, the Whatcom County Council has enacted a long series of six-month moratoriums. The regulation the council is voting on Tuesday would make them permanent.

The ordinance would prohibit new refineries or coal facilities and also force stricter regulation of any expansions of fossil fuel facilities at Cherry Point. Backers say they’ve been working on this for at least five years and are now confident they have the votes for it to pass. They say oil industry representatives have been at the table for recent negotiations and are not expected to block the latest iteration of the ordinance. Oil companies have also managed to add several thousand jobs despite the string of moratoriums that have been in place since 2016.

PIVOT POINT: LUMMI VICTORY 

Five years ago,the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the plug on Gateway Pacific proposal after the Lummi Tribe argued it would violate treaty fishing rights. The land at Cherry Point is adjacent to waters that are at the heart of the tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing area. And the state has designated that area an aquatic reserve. 

“What was important about that is that the county council at the time really heard both the tribes and the larger community that we want greater protections. We did not want this to be an area sited for coal ports or other large fossil fuel facilities,” says Shannon Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Resources.

There two oil refineries at Cherry Point will remain. But Wright says the ordinance would draw a line in the sand. It would force tight regulation of any expansion of those refineries, and it would prevent all new fossil fuel industries, including coal ports or coal power plants.

“We need to stop expanding fossil fuel capacity and invest in greater clean energy,” she says. 

It also prohibits new piers and wharfs in the area.  

And if it passes, she says, Whatcom County could set an example for communities nationwide on how local zoning policy can help fight climate change.  

“There will no longer be the ability to even propose a coal terminal, a coal-fired power plant, an export facility for fossil fuels,” says Matt Krogh, director of the Safe Cities campaign for Stand.earth, which is working to phase out fossil fuels in Washington as well as across the border in British Columbia. 

He says what’s happening at Cherry Point represents a big shift in mindset. Right now, whenever something is proposed, there’s an assumption that it will get built. And all people can do is argue about what measures can be taken to mitigate the impact. 

“But what's been happening in Whatcom County for the last 10 years and in the state and Oregon is that people have been saying no to these new proposals coming forward one by one by one,” he says. And people are winning.

“You know, we had seven coal terminals proposed at one point in the Northwest, and they're all done now,” Krogh says. 

The Whatcom County Council meets Tuesday at 6 p.m. The meeting will include a public hearing and vote on the permanent fossil fuel ban for Cherry Point.

Update, Wednesday morning: There will be no new refineries, coal terminals, piers or other new fossil fuel infrastructure in Whatcom County’s Cherry Point industrial zone. The Whatcom County Council voted unanimously Tuesday night in favor of a permanent ban on these industries in the 7,000-acre area. More details to come.

 

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