This Small U.S. County Just Became a Major Roadblock for Unrefined Fossil Fuel Exports in North America

Read time: 6 mins
Cherry Point

Unrefined fossil fuels won’t be shipped out of a small Washington State export facility at Cherry Point any time soon, due to a temporary moratorium imposed by the Whatcom County Council.

The moratorium positions Cherry Point as a major roadblock for both U.S. and Canadian companies scrounging for export facilities to ship unprocessed oil, gas and coal to overseas markets.

We are determined to use whatever legal tools we have to address climate change and to protect good refining jobs,” Barry Buchanan, council chair in Whatcom County, told DeSmog Canada.

Amid dwindling community-level support for fossil fuel infrastructure and after the U.S. lifted a 40-year old oil export ban, Cherry Point has been flooded with export permit applications for LNG, propane, coal and bitumen.

The idea of becoming a new outpost for fossil fuel exports has also taken on new significance in light of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a global climate treaty.

Who knows what kind of things are going to be coming at us with all the relaxed environmental regulations,” Buchanan said.

But we are determined to be the last line of defence. We are going to give it everything we have got.”

Fight Against Fossil Fuel Exports Could Set Legal Precedent

Whatcom County’s fight is poised to become a critical test case for communities fighting fossil fuel export projects at the local level.

The County is conducting a study of existing laws with the aim of developing recommendations “for legal ways the county may choose to limit the negative impacts on public safety, transportation, the economy and environment from crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases and natural gas exports from (Cherry Point) above levels in existence as of March 1 2017,” according to the amendments.

The aim is to enact permanent legislation, Buchanan said.

New exports would be accompanied by increased industrialization at Cherry Point as well as increased emissions — associated impacts unpopular with some local residents.

Proposed fossil fuel export projects for Cherry Point would more than double the carbon emissions of the entire state of Washington, Alex Ramel, a director with StandEarth, an organization campaigning for restrictions on unrefined fossil fuel exports.

Ramel said before the moratorium was put in place, the county council was overwhelmed with export proposals.

Looking at the horizon, there was so much more coming,” he said.

Different proposals kept popping up, like in Whack-A-Mole, so Whatcom County put a piece of plywood over the whole board instead of waiting for bad projects to come along.”

Canadian Companies Eye Cherry Point as West Coast Export Alternative

Whatcom County has been keeping a close eye on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would bring 400 tankers through the Salish Sea annually.

County councillor Carl Weimer told DeSmog Canada the Council reacted with incredulity to the suggestion Kinder Morgan consider Cherry Point as an alternate destination, rather than routing the pipeline through Burnaby where opposition has been very vocal.

B.C.’s new NDP-Green alliance which plans to scrap the Trans Mountain pipeline project appears to be good news, Buchanan said.

But other Canadian proposals include Steelhead LNG’s plan for a Saanich Inlet terminal with a pipeline under the Salish Sea from Sumas to Cherry Point.

The project does not have approval, Weimar said, but other Canadian LNG projects are also on the radar.

Steelhead did not have anyone available to comment on whether the Whatcom County moratorium and plan amendments would change their proposal.

Another Canadian company under Whatcom County scrutiny is Calgary-based Petrogas Energy, which has acquired liquid fuel storage tanks and a wharf at Cherry Point, suitable for export of propane.

Petrogas did not return calls from DeSmog Canada.

Whatcom County Fights for Local Right to Limit Fossil Fuel Exports

But Whatcom County might not have the final say, Weimer said, because local government cannot outlaw the export of unrefined fossil fuels, which falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Weimer said public health issues, safety, insurance, bonding, land use and the transportation of fuel are issues that warrant local control. As to whether or not those local concerns can amount to restrictions placed on fossil fuel exports, “we just don’t know yet,” Weimer said.

The seven-member council has voted to spend $150,000 to hire lawyers to look at how much control is in local hands.

The moratorium, first introduced last year, has been extended for six months by the council which amended the plan to limit the number of industrial piers in the area.

The new plans also focus on protection of the Salish Sea and the rights of the Lummi Nation rather than expanding industry.

The plan acknowledges the industrial base of Cherry Point, home to an aluminum smelter and two major oil refineries, but says: “The expansion of these industries needs to be done in ways that do not significantly impact the ecology of the Salish Sea or encourage expanded transhipment of unrefined fossil fuels.”

When the moratorium was introduced, it immediately attracted the attention of industry, especially as the U.S. recently lifted a ban on the export of crude oil, increasing pressure on deep-water ports such as Cherry Point.

The reaction underlined the need for reasoned reflection, according to Weimer.

We needed to make sure none of the projects were grandfathered while we looked at new policies to address fossil fuel exports,” he said.

However, in an area where well-paying refinery and smelter jobs are prized, it has, at times, been an acrimonious debate with council members being branded as job killers by some of the 200,000 residents.

I am guessing it split about 50-50 and, unfortunately, it became a jobs versus the environment argument and it’s really not that black and white,” Weimer said.

The reality is that jobs would disappear if Cherry Point becomes a transit terminal for exporting raw materials, Buchanan said.

Last year the county reached the end of a six-year debate over a proposal for the largest coal port ever proposed in North America when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that reviews permits for such projects, ruled that the coal port would infringe on the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights.

The $700-million Gateway Pacific proposal by SSA Marine of Seattle would have seen a trestle and wharf stretching over 122 acres and the Lummi Tribe argued that it would kill the crab fishery and prevent the rebuilding of herring runs.

The terminal would have brought massive ships to the port 487 times a year as coal and other commodities were loaded for Asian ports.

The company withdrew its application this year, but there are now fears that with Premier Christy Clark threatening to ban the export of thermal coal from Vancouver there could be an effort to revive the proposal.

While Whatcom County works on bringing in permanent legislation, Ramel hopes other jurisdictions are watching the ground-breaking work being done in a community with refineries and an industrial base

This is a big win for the climate,” he said. “And one of the most important things we can do is fight climate change.”

Image: Cherry Point. Photo: NOAA

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