Unlikely partners’ compromise will halt new fossil-fuel development at Cherry Point

Fuels for cars, furnaces, airplanes and more have been produced at refineries on Whatcom County’s Cherry Point for decades. The nature of those products could change or other uses of the industrial area could be added, with a stakeholders’ group working on recommendations for regulations that would prohibit some new fossil-fuel-based development; above, a view from the BP Cherry Point Refinery’s main entrance. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Kimberly Cauvel

— An effort to steer future development at Whatcom County’s primary industrial center away from fossil fuels while providing regulatory certainty is inching closer to completion with the help of an unlikely partnership between environment and industry interests. 

The nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, fuel companies that operate at Cherry Point and unions that represent workers are together fine-tuning proposed changes to Whatcom County zoning and development codes, comprehensive plan regulations and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) procedures. 

“We’re moving along and we have momentum,” RE Sources Climate and Energy Policy Manager Eddy Ury said during a Whatcom County Council committee meeting Tuesday, Nov. 24. “We are very close now.” 

The proposed changes were first drafted by the county council. The county planning commission then developed them in detail between September 2019 and August 2020, and asked environment and industry representatives most likely to find flaws to form a joint stakeholder group to review them.  

The Cherry Point industrial area is indicated
by blue and purple checkerboard on
the comprehensive plan map.

The changes would prohibit development of new fossil fuel refineries, fossil fuel transshipment facilities, coal-fired power plants and industrial piers and docks at Cherry Point, on the waterfront northwest of Bellingham. The changes would also set several new requirements for additions or expansions at existing facilities including the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery, BP Cherry Point Refinery and Petrogas Ferndale Terminal, as well as for new developments. 

Whatcom County Senior Planner Matt Aamot said key changes include requiring conditional use permits expansions at the refineries and requiring greenhouse gas emissions of proposed projects to be analyzed under SEPA. 

“Right now most industrial uses at Cherry Point are permitted outright, so they don’t have to go to a public hearing,” Aamot said.

As a result, Ury said, local refineries may build facilities to accommodate oil trains without public awareness. The proposals taking shape would change that by sending refinery expansion projects to the county hearing examiner. 

Stronger protection

Making clear and sensible what constitutes as an expansion is an example of details the stakeholder group is ironing out. 

“We want the rules to be clear, transparent, easy to understand,” Aamot said. “Are these the thresholds we want? Could they be clarified or simplified? That’s a discussion that’s going on.” 

The intent of the proposed changes according to the initiating ordinance and other documents is to better protect human health and safety, environmental health and tribal treaty fishing rights from the impacts of fossil fuels, including the potential for spills and the effects of climate change.

Those are goals the Lummi Nation, which has treaty rights to harvest a variety of fish and shellfish from the area, said in a comment letter it wants to see come to fruition. The tribe noted that it sees protecting Cherry Point — known as Xwe’chi’eXen in Lummi — as a sacred duty.

The county council began discussing the potential for steering away from fossil-fuel-focused industries after the Gateway Pacific Terminal was proposed to ship mass amounts of coal out of Cherry Point to Asia. That proposal was denied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 because of Lummi treaty rights — and the amount of crude oil shipped by train from North Dakota’s Bakken region increased dramatically. 

“There is this increasing risk to public health and safety coming from increased shipment of fossil fuels into our region … with the train and ships,” Ury said. 

Public outcry also ensued over the proposed coal terminal, risks associated with oil trains and impacts of climate change. 

In response, Whatcom County has been working since 2016 toward developing new regulations for fossil-fuel-based industry. The potential for local oversight is of particular interest here because two of five oil refineries in Washington state, or 40%, are located at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, which is home to just 3% of the state’s population. 

“There’s a concern for safety, environmental accidents, pollution and other incidents,” Aamot said. 

One last moratorium?

When the county council began discussing the issue, it passed in September 2016 a six-month moratorium for establishing or expanding facilities that would increase shipment of unrefined fossil fuels not to be processed or consumed at Cherry Point. That moratorium — renewed about every six months since — has bought the county time to draft regulatory changes to address the issues. The moratorium was renewed Tuesday for what may be the final time. 

“We do hope this is in fact the last time,” said Ury, who is serving as leader of the joint stakeholder group. He told Salish Current it felt like the “umpteenth” renewal, but the policy development process has been drawn out because of its hot-button focus at the nexus of the environment and economy. “It has been extremely slow and there have been lots of delays and pauses throughout,” Ury said. 

County councilmembers Todd Donovan and Carol Frazey said they are looking forward to receiving the joint stakeholder group’s final recommendations for the policy changes, possibly in December or January. 

Councilmembers Ben Elenbaas, Tyler Byrd and Kathy Kershner voted against the moratorium after the BP refinery’s Pat Brady and several union representatives spoke in opposition to its 10th renewal. 

“We don’t believe the continuation of the moratorium is necessary,” Brady said. That’s in part because the permanent rules are nearly finished, and in part because there are no currently proposed projects that are applicable to the moratorium. 

Imagine yourself in ‘green’

Brady was one of 15 speakers who offered comments during a public hearing. As has been a theme throughout discussions about the future of Cherry Point industry, some spoke about potential economic ramifications, while others emphasized the need to protect the environment. 

“I challenge all of those professionals out there who feel they might be displaced by too much green in their lives,” said Markis Dee Stidham, who identified himself as a displaced fisherman. “Think about how you’d apply yourself in green technologies, because I think that’s what we need in the future.” 

Under SEPA, Whatcom County on July 28 issued a determination of nonsignificance, meaning the proposed regulatory changes are not likely to have significant environmental impacts. Industry representatives have agreed to take part in the stakeholder group but aren’t in full agreement with the proposed policy changes.

Fossil-fuel-based products are shipped from the
BP Cherry Point Refinery pier. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

The Western States Petroleum Association and an international law firm, each representing fuel companies that operate at Cherry Point, have filed appeals of the county’s determination of nonsignificance for the proposal. Industry representatives say in their appeal that their ability to produce fuels with lower greenhouse gas emissions than companies elsewhere was left out of the SEPA review. 

The proposed changes now being polished for application to the 7,030-acre Cherry Point Urban Growth Area, also called the Cherry Point Industrial District, are intended to foster development of greener industries. They are not meant to hinder operations at existing facilities, according to various planning documents. 

“The amendments recognize that the existing industries provide significant employment and have shipped refined fossil fuel products for decades. The amendments also recognize that existing operations of fossil fuel facilities, along with limited expansions, are allowed with appropriate environmental review,” the planning commission’s August recommendations state.  

Continued operations, maintenance and repairs, modifications designed to implement new fuel standards and safety and environmental improvements would be allowed at existing facilities. “If they’re doing upgrades they should be doing upgrades that make them cleaner and safer and reduce pollution,” Ury said. 

Manufacturing, fabrication, printing, storage, boat building and repair, communications, solid waste handling and power plants using fuels other than coal also remain allowed uses in the Cherry Point Industrial Area under the proposed changes, according to the planning commission’s recommendations. According to the proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan, the Cherry Point area is well suited for heavy industry because of its location with access to deep water shoreline for shipping, connections with rail and its proximity to Canadian ports 

Various industry representatives said Tuesday they are pleased with the collaboration underway and grateful for Ury’s leadership. 

“I’d like to recognize Eddy Ury of RE Sources, who has facilitated many of the meetings over recent months … to try to find a compromise in the code language,” Petrogas Marine and Safety Operations Advisor Andrew Gamble said.

While they’ve found ways to collaborate, though, their interests still diverge: RE Sources interested in a quicker divestment from fossil fuels and industry leaders interested in a stable future for their business. 

“There’s really no benefit to us wasting time by re-stating what we disagree on, because we know what they are,” Ury said. “We’ve had to be creative, we’ve had to be collaborative, there’s certainly a lot of arguments.” 

“What we’re trying to do now is just clear the runway and land the plane, and write something that can be lasting code that is effective at what it’s trying to achieve,” he said. 

Kimberly Cauvel

Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University. See more of her work at kimberlycauvel.com.