An Oil Industry Hub in Washington State Bans New Fossil Fuel Development

The plan brings together local stakeholders, including the oil industry, labor unions and environmental groups.

Emergency response personnel work at the scene of a derailed train carrying crude oil on Dec. 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington. Credit: David Ryder/Getty Images

Emergency response personnel work at the scene of a derailed train carrying crude oil on Dec. 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington. Credit: David Ryder/Getty Images

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Eight years ago, Whatcom County, on the northwest coast of Washington State, seemed destined to become the gateway through which North America’s expanding fossil fuel industry would connect with the hungry energy markets of Asia.

The BP and Phillips 66 refineries in Ferndale, Washington—about 100 miles north of Seattle—were building new receiving facilities for oil trains to deliver crude from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota. Tar sands oil from Canada also was coming in, with plans looming to expand pipeline capacity. And, most significantly, the nation’s largest coal export terminal was set to be built just to the south in Bellingham, expected to unload 15 coal trains weekly that would rumble into the county from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

But the massive coal proposal would prove to be the undoing of the vision of Whatcom County as a fossil fuel export mecca. The plan produced a ferocious backlash, killing the project in 2016 and sparking a local political upheaval that culminated on Tuesday night.

At its weekly meeting, the Whatcom County Council voted to approve an overhaul of local land-use policies, allowing existing refineries to expand but prohibiting new refineries, transshipment facilities, coal plants, piers or wharfs in its coastal industrial zone. The new rules also require a public review of the environmental impact of any significant expansion at existing refineries and other facilities, including any increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The moves were spearheaded by council members who had won their seats since 2013, and were driven to get into local politics by the coal terminal controversy. Environmental advocates, who worked for a decade to defeat plans for more carbon-polluting industry on the northwest coast, say it is the first time a local government in the United States has utilized land use law to impose such a broad, permanent ban on fossil fuel development.

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“We don’t have the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and we have not attempted to do so,” said Rud Browne, one of the Whatcom County council members who led the effort, which stretched over more than six years, to develop the new rules. He added, “But we had a deep concern about the increased transshipment of fossil fuels through Puget Sound, and also through the downtown core of two of our major cities.”

The vote came after a decade-long battle over control of Whatcom County government, in which both the fossil fuel industry and environmental groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funding. The coal industry used dark money groups, and even got involved in a fight over redistricting that threatened to dilute the power of coastal cities to choose county-elected officials. There was also lobbying of the Washington state legislature; Gov, Jay Inslee’s landmark climate legislation, passed this past spring, included “preemption” provisions that place restraints on local government action on greenhouse gases. Emails obtained by Inside Climate News dating back to 2018 show that BP, in particular, pushed for preemption over its concerns about action by Whatcom County.

In the end, though, representatives of the oil industry, labor unions, and environmental groups all spoke in favor of the compromise package the council developed after intensive negotiations among all the local stakeholders. The new rules are designed to allow the current refineries to expand and modify their plants, while barring new fossil fuel facilities and export infrastructure. The council voted unanimously in favor of the package, after a brief, dramatic hesitation by council member Ben Elenbaas, who once had likened the tactics of a local environmental group to “domestic terrorism.”

A Cleaner Future on the Northwest Coast

Because of the industry involvement in shaping the new rules, environmentalists hope they will be well-armored against legal challenges.

“I think what we have are rules that the industry doesn’t want, but the regulatory clarity they do want, and enough participation in the process that it’s going to be hard for them to take legal action,” said Matt Krogh, campaign director of the SAFE Cities campaign of Stand.earth, one of the environmental groups that pushed for the measures.

A Roadmap for Activism?

The decision is important for the future of the Salish Sea, the waterway stretching from British Columbia into Washington State, including Puget Sound. The sea’s green islands, with snow-capped peaks in the distance, draw tourists and provide habitat for hundreds of species. The waters, considered sacred by the region’s first people, the Lummi Nation, are home to more than 250 fish species and 37 species of marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, or orcas. At last year’s count, only 74 whales remained in the Salish Sea.

But there long has been a clash between protection of the ecosystem and coastal development. Whatcom County on the Canadian border, with its ideally located natural deepwater port and 7,000 acres of industrially zoned land, has been eyed as a prime location for fossil fuel industry exports. With U.S. demand for coal-fired electricity declining, the coal industry hoped to stake out a port at Bellingham for shipping as much as 54 million metric tons per year to feed Asia’s still-growing demand for coal power. The region’s refineries, long ago established to handle Alaskan crude oil, which is now in decline, were well positioned to use rail and pipeline to tap into vast new sources from the growing Canadian tar sands and North Dakota’s Bakken shale.

At one point, there were enough proposals for new fossil fuel facilities in Whatcom County to double the carbon footprint of Washington state, said Alex Ramel, climate policy adviser for Stand.earth. But the proposal for the huge coal export terminal was a turning point. Residents of the city of Bellingham crowded into standing-room-only panel discussions. National environmental activists like Bill McKibben headlined huge anti-coal rallies. An appeal by the Lummi Nation ultimately killed the coal project; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 refused to grant it the required federal permits, citing its potential to infringe on treaty-protected fishing rights.

By then, a new slate of environmentally conscious Whatcom County citizens had stepped forward to seek local public office. Fossil fuel exports didn’t become a campaign issue per se; candidates steered clear of discussing the issue directly, or they could have been disqualified from future decision-making under Washington State’s strict appearance of fairness doctrine.  But the candidates’ general statements on the importance of environmental protection to economic development in the county sent a clear signal. Washington Conservation Voters spent more than $300,000 on candidates in Whatcom County campaigns in 2013, with the help of $275,000 from climate activist billionaire Tom Steyer’s Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action. They outspent a pair of dark money PACs called Saving Whatcom and Whatcom First, which were supported by Cloud Peak Energy, Texas coal billionaire Corbin Robertson and other coal interests, which poured more $171,000 into Whatcom County races.

Environmentalists gained two votes and a majority on the Whatcom County council, which soon  imposed the first of what were to be 11 six-month moratoriums on permitting new or expanded facilities for shipping unrefined fossil fuels. But it took years to come up with a permanent land use plan that took into account both environmental and industry concerns. Browne, a tech entrepreneur and angel investor who was elected with support from the Conservation Voters, said he felt it was important for the council not to overstep its legal authority and to seek input from all stakeholders, including industry, in order to build a lasting consensus.

“I’m absolutely driven by the fact that, irrespective of what I may want from an environmental perspective or any other perspective, at the end of the day, it is pointless to pass a law that will not stand up in court,” Browne said.

Not everyone was happy with the solution the council approved this week. Wendy Harris, a prominent local environmental activist who suffers from lung disease, said that there should be no expansion of existing fossil fuel facilities allowed, as well as steps taken to reduce emissions. “I’m concerned that the stakeholder group really allowed the refineries to write their own proposals and to regulate themselves,” Harris said, taking frequent pauses during her testimony to catch her breath.

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And the new Whatcom rules, while clearly designed with the intent of requiring mitigation of any increase in greenhouse gas emissions by existing industry, will be limited by the state of Washington’s decision-making. The Whatcom ordinances refer to the preemption provisions in the new state climate law, and make clear they will be bound by the state implementing regulations that are currently being developed. “We had language in there that’s kind of watered down,” said council member Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. He said he is hoping that the state sets regulations that take into account not just emissions at the refineries but the lifecycle of the crude oil, including the carbon-intensive operations of the Alberta tar sands.

BP, when asked to comment on the new Whatcom County rules, pointed to the joint statement it signed with other stakeholders who participated in negotiating the agreement, including Phillips 66, Petrogas and oil-and-coal shipper BNSF Railway, as well as local environmental groups.

“While each of our organizations may not fully agree with or support individual policies

contained in the proposal, or believe all the policies go far enough or necessarily support

their use in other situations or jurisdictions, we collectively saw the need to come together,” the statement said. The expert participants, they said, made sure that “policies were drafted in a way that supported the broad policy goals outlined by the County Council, but did not create any unintended impacts to the existing Cherry Point businesses.”

Krogh said his group is hoping that the action by Whatcom County provides a roadmap for other local government activism across the country. He thinks the goal of stopping fossil fuel expansion may be much more motivating than the more abstract concept of addressing climate change. Krogh himself was inspired to activism by tangible impacts of Northwestern fossil fuel expansion—a resident of Bellingham, he witnessed the smoke from both the 1999 Olympic  pipeline explosion and a BNSF oil train derailment from the windows of his home.

“By passing this ordinance tonight,” Krogh said at the hearing, “you’re providing a template for so many other communities that need a pathway to break away from fossil fuels, from dependence on a pollution-based economy and to have the freedom to choose our own destiny.”